Andrey Bartenev: “Artist Is Like a Giant Jellyfish”

Sergej Timofejev

And perhaps the world should learn how to deal with this creature correctly.


Summer 2017 saw the Russian artist Andrey Bartenev revisit Riga following a lengthy interval of absence since the times of the legendary Untamed Fashion Assembly. The local BOLD concept store hosted his performance centred around a party of space aliens landing on Earth and an exhibition of his ceramics ‒ a mischievous and cheerful take on the subject of cats ‒ and a collection of globe-like costumes.

Andrey Bartenev is a human phenomenon, an artist whose creative style is instantly recognisable and never fails to impress. In 2015, an extensive retrospective of Bartenev’s art ran at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art; back then, we published a review by Nadezhda Lyalina, who had worked on the exhibition as part of Andrey’s team. She wrote: ‘It is not by accident that costumed performance is becoming Bartenev’s most important means of expression. Andrey is a professionally trained stage director, and he, of course, is well versed in the theatre history and the history of stage costumes; he is equipped to create costumes, develop set solutions and direct his own shows. All of the above helps stage experimental performances that, while impressing with their riot of shapes and colours, are also deeply thought-out and well organized in their inherent structure’.

As a conversation partner, Andrey is calm and poetic, and sometimes answers a question with a counter-question; we are talking at the BOLD concept store, sitting on the same sofa where, only a couple of months earlier, I spoke with Andrew Logan.

Performance at the opening of Andrey Bartenev’s exhibition in Riga. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

In late August [the conversation took place in summer] you will be taking part at the famous Burning Man festival, an impressive annual event held in the middle of a desert in Nevada...

Yes, the costumes shown at the performance in Riga will travel with us; we are going to wear them at the procession there. Our station will be called ‘Aliens? Yes!’ The thing is, the whole programme of this year’s edition of the Burning Man is dedicated to various religions and rituals. And we are bringing to the attention of the world around us that the endless talk about the first contact with space aliens having already taken place is transforming into a sort of myth that is catered to by a decent number of various ceremonies; in fact, it is already a new contemporary religion.

It seems to me that for you, various myths and mythology are generally a very fertile subject.

I do love a good myth, that is true. There is no getting away from the fact. Generally speaking, to be able to express yourself through images, you need to... you need to write lots of poetry. Your soul has to be overloaded either with philosophical contemplation of some sort, or with poetic rhythms. Otherwise, nothing good comes out of it.

You mean you write yourself?

Yes, of course I do. And many of my lyrical lines go on to become the subjects of my visual compositions. Or sometimes the other way around. My spatial shapes serve as a reason for writing a text.

Do you publish your texts somewhere?

Do I publish? I don’t have time for that. I can post them on Instagram... as pictures.

A video tour of Andrey Bartenev’s retrospective at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art in 2015

Apart from the aliens ‒ have any new mythologies emerged recently that you find interesting and that could potentially transform into some sort of objects that you create?

Can you propose anything?

Perhaps this new mythology of the hermit-artist who has completely severed links to any information streams and attempts to arrange his or her life completely independently?

Tell me, please ‒ is it at all possible in your practice?


And it is equally impossible in my art practice. I may be dreaming of the thing that you are asking about. And yet the reality is completely different. And if it is different, it means that completely different revelations await me than those I would experience working in some sort of ascetic solitude.

Do you travel a lot?


Are there any locations that particularly inspire you, nourish you?

Yes, I get nourishment from the sea, from the ocean, from unpopulated spaces.

Andrey Bartenev. Photo: Pavel Antonov

I recall that the shooting of the collections you brought to the Untamed Fashion Assembly, which was held in Latvia, also took place on the seashore.

Yes, in Jūrmala. In 1992, it was The Botanic Ballet and in 1994 ‒ Snow Queen.

Do you remember your first impressions from those visits ‒ from the Assembly, from Riga?

From the Assembly ‒ yes, I remember it very well. From Riga ‒ there is very little that I recall from the time, because we all went off to Jūrmala together and hung out there. As for the Assembly itself... Imagine that you are a young artist making your first indecisive steps, and suddenly there emerge forces, conditions and people that tell you: ‘Yes, what you are doing is right! It is exactly what was lacking for us. It is exactly what we have been waiting for. It is exactly what you should dedicate your life, your time, your energy to.’ Support of this kind means a lot. It creates the emotional conviction and sense of inner truth that you hang on to for the rest of your life from then on.

Wouldn’t you say that the Untamed Fashion Assembly was the quintessence of the 1990s with their openness to various forms, to mixing everything with everything?

Definitely; it would be impossible to make something like that today.


A concept like enthusiasm has completely disappeared from our European culture of today. In the early 1990s, in the post-Soviet space, it was also a residual feature of the Soviet upbringing, when the communist propaganda was delivering the message of youthful enthusiasm that was supposed to guide us all on our way to the bright future. Over the last 20 years, nothing close to that has emerged on any platform, be it national, party-affiliated or Boy Scout-related. The term ‘enthusiasm’ has been simply forgotten.

Perhaps it’s just that enthusiasm today is much more quickly capitalized. It also happened in the 1990s, of course...

But we were around at a time when it was not the main reason behind making this or that project yet.

Andrey Bartenev’s show at the Berlin Alternative Fashion Week in 2016

Who do you find interesting and promising from the generation that has announced itself during the last decade?

Gosha Rubchinskiy…

We ran a huge article on him by Alexandra Artamonova.

He is my student. And I like what Sasha Frolova is doing ‒ also a student of mine.

I was not aware that Gosha Rubchinskiy was your student. And yet, of course, there is a profound understanding of performance art in the way he stages his shows, there are expert skills of the genre. What about you ‒ how did you design your first performances? Did you take the legacy of the 1920s‒1930s and that particular energy as your point of departure?

Look. Brain is an unpredictable tool. It soaks up everything. And we have no idea what the synapses, the neural connections are that join together the various fragments of our knowledge, our memory. Once you start creating, you produce a result that is a tangle, a knot of this inexplicable neural interaction. And you cannot discern whether it is a kind of response to the early 20th-century culture or to Bauhaus, or a distillate of constructivism, or an expression of yourself. It is impossible to tell precisely. Because such is the peculiarity of our brain ‒ soaking everything up and then re-juxtaposing and re-projecting it.

 ‘The Botanic Ballet’, for instance, was about my childhood games back in Norilsk. We were Norilsk kids ‒ always half-starving; we did not have any fruit or anything like that. And we modelled pears out of snow ‒ fruit that we hardly ever got to see in real life, because it was practically impossible to transport them to Norilsk. We made grapes out of snow. You get the idea ‒ you model things that you dream about: a candy, a tank, a castle, a cave or a machine gun. And this principle of children’s play was embodied in ‘The Botanic Ballet’.

The Botanic Ballet in Moscow. 1992. Photo: Hans-Jürgen Burkard

I was born in Norilsk, where winter is nine months long. It means snow. This is the reason why I love the colour white. And in my ceramics, white is the main colour. Because it has been instilled in me. The colour white is in my heart and in my soul. And everything I draw is necessarily juxtaposed with white. Even if there is not a single white spot and everything is colourful. The mechanism of perception has been shaped by the nature of the Extreme North in such a way that white is the determining reagent for everything. Even when I started working extensively and actively with colour, I used very open, fluorescent colours in wild combinations. Because again ‒ I needed to convey the powerful contrast between the white snow and the black winter sky of Norilsk.

I can, of course, tell you that I clearly knew who Paul Klee was and what the Russian avant-garde was, or Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky. And yet I did not know who Dubuffet was, and when I made ‘The Botanic Ballet’ in 1992 and the European press started publishing extensive reports about me in 1994, they said that it had been copied from Dubuffet. And I asked: ‘Who is he?’ I was sincere, because I genuinely did not know it. There was no way I could have acquainted myself with the whole history of French art. Certain things reached us, but definitely not the whole body of art. If it had reached us, perhaps I would have expressed myself completely differently, I would have done the whole thing with greater subtlety and wisdom. But I did it the way I felt like doing at the time.

And if we look at the main character of the ‘Botanical Ballet’, Uncle Prune in whose costume I was dancing myself, his headgear is actually St Basil’s Cathedral from the Red Square. Because I admired it; it was exactly the very bobber, the very bait that made me, Andrey Bartenev, move to Moscow and stay there. And if there is something left in Moscow that I still hold sacred, that still keeps me from leaving after all these years ‒ and I live there since 1989 ‒ then it is only this church with its beauty and its sincerity. Both inside and out.

The whole history of art actually serves as a giant arsenal for an artist...

Definitely. Why invent a bicycle if people have already shown us the way. So let us find out where this road is taking us.

The First Snowflake Fallen on the Ground. Object from the Snow Queen performance. Photo: Hans-Jürgen Burkar

For instance, in your Snow Queen performance/collection there was a character that consisted of countless postcards by Gilbert and George.

It was ‘The First Snowflake Fallen on the Ground’. It was in 1990 or thereabouts, and they had a big exhibition running at the Central House of Artist; they came to Moscow and I met them. And because a friend of mine was working as an usher at the CHA at the time, I managed to get hold of a whole boxful of their postcards.

And the most amazing thing about is that Gilbert and George themselves later made a series of works from postcards, in the 2000s. I saw their exhibition at the White Cube Gallery where they showed giant collages made out of them ‒ all sorts of flags, etc.

You have to understand... An artist is like a giant jellyfish. If you watch this jellyfish, you see that it is propelling itself in space due to the dynamics of shifting its jelly-like membrane. If you touch it, it can sting you. But this fringe of tentacles, this slime, this transparency ‒ these are all answers to any question: to questions on form, on composition, colour, priority, meaning. This vagueness and, at the same time, tension of its jelly-like body is the answer to the ever-changing world around it. And perhaps the world around it should learn how to deal correctly with a creature of this kind. And then this society will be amazed at the productivity and the number of unexpected solutions/answers. However, if the society continues to contaminate the water in which this creature is swimming, there will be just a single phase left for the jellyfish: self-preservation.

If we start this discussion about the conditions of contemporary art, the conditions in which you, artist Bartenev, currently are operating, I personally feel that I find myself in a horribly aggressive environment ‒ that I cannot even bring myself to think about my own potential. That I don’t feel like doing anything at all. But sometimes it’s the other way around ‒ a little ray of attention, of concern, suddenly sets you into a spin like a merry-go-round that whooshes straight up into the stratosphere. And you start to shower everybody with knowledge that you did not even suspect you were able to put into words. In other words, the super sensitive souls that they are, artists are, of course, children of the sky. You have to treat them like clouds that float above you ‒ they just float, so let them float. Because sometimes they can float out to a desert and pour themselves down like rain, and then you will see the beautiful flowers that can grow in a total desert.

Ivan Onoprienko. Bartenev. 2013. Photo print

Wonderful... One of the really important forms of expression for you is the genre of performance, of happening. It would be interesting to know what your first steps in this area were ‒ before the Botanic Ballet and Snow Queen.

The basis of my education was studies of stage directing. I graduated from the Institute of Culture as a professionally trained director. That provided me with the basic methodology of how to treat the material – any material. I can take myself apart and analyse like a basic script, identifying the main event, the development, the final event, the segues you can insert to move from one scene to another, and look at the ways you can set up the composition to make it look better. After four years of studies, of course, the whole approach had started to provoke a certain inner rejection. I spent eight months working at the Young Spectator’s Theatre only to realize that I did not want to waste my time battling with the classical canon of stage directing. And so I went back to visual arts. But the knowledge was not lost. I started merging theatre with visual arts. In the late 1980s, the Teatralnaya Zhizn magazine published an article by [Boris] Yukhananov, where he spoke about performance art in a very accessible and popular form. And it also helped me understand where I was going. And the cover of this issue of the magazine, which I held on to for a very long time, featured some guy from Yukhananov’s Laboratory; it was literally three years ago that I found out who he was. It turns out that I have been friends with this man for twenty years. It is the currently New York-based photographer Pasha Antonov. How can these fateful intersections of lives even be possible? In the late 1980s, I obtain an issue of a magazine that becomes a genuine outlet for my inquisitive mind. The cover of the magazine is firmly imprinted in my memory. A few years later, I meet the man on the cover of the magazine, and we become friends. How does it happen that our brain, without us being aware of it, goes and joins us this way? I don’t understand this at all; I am not well versed in this magical stuff. I’m just making a record of the fact that it happens.

And I’m grateful to my destiny that through Pasha Antonov I met Robert Wilson and spent six years of my art practice by the side of this genius. And it was through him that I met another wonderful person, Lisa de Kooning (daughter of Willem de Kooning), who introduced me to the importance and power of abstract thinking. Because Bob Wilson, of course, is not about abstract thinking. It is an incredibly pragmatic and logical space. Even if its full of humour and sarcasm, it is nevertheless the product of a powerful intellectual effort and the intellectual work of an enormous team of people. Through Lisa, I learnt about the methods employed by her father, and I found them astounding. And I realized that the world is like a transparent invisible matrix. All you have to do is plunge your hand into this transparent matrix and take out something that you didn’t even suspect could be taken out. And then you have to examine, to take a good look at this thing that you’ve got now, and for that you have to train a special kind of vision.

There is this brilliant nursery rhyme, ‘What are little boys made of’? And it is totally about art, about its all-pervasiveness and about the absolute permissiveness of this form. And so yesterday, when a number of journalists mentioned [Petr] Pavlensky, I told them that, yes, I admire the hard work and heroic spirit, the practice conducted by the artist. And then they ask: ‘Why don’t you that kind of thing?’ That is not my energetic karma. I am good at what I am doing. If I am an excellent swimmer ‒ why take up skiing?

Andrey Bartenev and the organizer of his Riga exhibition Bruno Birmanis (right) at the entrance to BOLD. Left, photographer Jegor Zaika.

Absolutely. But have you found your place within the situation in Russia today and in Moscow, where you live?

After everything that has happened to me, I have realized that my psychosomatic make-up will not allow me (due to some sort of cosmic reasons) to waste my life on building a career, on mingling with people who are ‘useful’ to me. I find it completely uninteresting. I will socialize only with people if I see a sparkle of sincerity in them and a curiosity about life and transformation. These are the people with whom I am going to socialize.

Sadly, art turned into art business very quickly. The process started around 1993. It is a very good business, just like, say, heart surgery. Or a head transplant. Have you heard ‒ an Italian surgeon is currently working on the first surgery of this sort in the history of mankind; he is preparing to transplant a disabled Russian man’s head to someone else’s body. And contemporary art is also a similar kind of business with similar results ‒ a transplant of a head to a new body.

In Moscow, some really nice and wonderful people work in this area. It’s just that I find their company boring. I can’t help it.

Ceramics based on drawings by Andrey Bartenev at the BOLD concept store in Riga. Photo: Andrejs Strokins.

As an artist, though, you are not at all sitting around feeling bored; you are taking up new media ‒ like ceramics, some examples of which you brought to Riga. If I’m not mistaken, you did not work in ceramics before...

I have been working in ceramics for the last four years or so. It just happened. Various people had been egging me on for some time. My director had been nagging me on the one hand; on the other hand, Timur Novikov said to me back in the 1990s that you were not likely ‘to earn your living with performance art’. In the late 1990s he mounted my solo show as part of the St Petersburg Festival of Decadence that he curated. The title of the exhibition was The Dancing Four-Eyes.

As for ceramics, it’s all about friendly gestures for me; it’s not an end in itself. However, it was this fooling around with it at home that led me to my favourite ceramic sculpture, The Sea Buckthorn. It is housed in one of the Moscow International Business Centre and is part of the Capital Group art collection. I made it from ceramics and metal in 2015 but the animated 3D model ‒ in 2006.

Sea Buckthorn at the 2015 exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Before that, I made a sculpture entitled Field of Lonely Hearts. Connection Lost for the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It won fabulous reviews in French and American press and was horribly derided by every Russian art critic and journalist, who all said that Bartenev had created a shop window, thus killing any potential career based on volumetric science art, because no-one would give me any money for it after this; so I thought: ‘Well look at these idiots, look at these wankers!’ They live in some sort of context of their own, one that does not even make any sense to me. So I gave up working in science art and started making 3D animation ‒ something that did not need much money. Something like ‘paper architecture’. And so in 2015 it was exactly this kind of project that was transferred from 3D to ceramics and metal. And that was when I felt the material, its warmth.

Was it reflected in the pieces you showed in Riga?

Now, there is a different story behind that. Because I sat down and had a think: ‘What shall I bring to Riga? What is shifting around in your soul, Bartenev?’ And it turned out to be cats. Then later, when we were already here and happened to walk out of our hotel, I saw this building with a tower and a black metallic cat with a raised tail. As if it was about to relieve itself right there, in front of passers-by. And then I thought ‒ so this is who had been tapping out this SOS in Morse code with its tail: Support me, support me, I’m here! Everybody loves me, too! (Laughs.)