- When one looks at your art, the question inevitably arises about your most vivid childhood memories, your first impressions. They say that the artist begins in childhood. In your case, which of your first impressions, feelings influenced your imagery?
- First of all – my family. My grandfather and grandmother were architects, and my father, Mikhail Maiofis, is a graphic artist and book illustrator. The house on Stachek Prospekt and the apartment, where I grew up, were designed and built by my grandfather. There I was surrounded by an excellent library, which my grandfather began collecting immediately after the War. Apart from drawing, my favourite pastime was looking through books on Art. There were magazines “The World of Art”, “Apollon”, monographs, published before the Revolution, with typical illustrations, made in the technique of intaglio printing – so one first discovers the Renaissance artists not through bright glossy reproductions, but through very specific monochrome images. There were, of course, also more recent publications and albums, which had been bought by my father: books on 20th century Art and a large collection of albums, which he used as material for his work: books on the history of costume, weapons, decorative art. As far as I can remember, I was always drawing something and was very interested in everything connected with Art. I did not study in art schools or clubs, I studied in my father’s studio. I remember that in my childhood I never worked in the open air. However, something else was used as a method – I would have to make a sketch from a still-life, a preliminary drawing, and then create a work on the basis of it in the studio.
- Was it a task?
- Yes. When my father set up still-lifes for me and, let’s say, something did not look really good from a particular angle, it was always emphasised that in the work it could be changed, corrected, because it was merely a still-life: there was no need to just copy things, on the contrary, it is better to treat them as material. A large part of my childhood works consists of illustrations and compositions on the theme of the books I had read. I made large series, for example, on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or on “The Golden Calf” and “12 Chairs”. I always chose the themes. These works were discussed, I was given advice and most importantly my father would often take a pencil himself and start drawing, showing how one or another task could be, in his opinion, solved. These, of course, were absolutely unforgettable moments. Apart from that, I, at an early age, had access to very different techniques and materials. I worked with pencils, pastels, gouache, and very early on began experimenting, under my father’s guidance, with printing techniques. My father is an outstanding master of etching. A large part of his book illustrations were created in this technique. I was 7 or 8 years old when I had the chance to become acquainted with this process.
- It’s extraordinary. I cannot recall any artist who started learning about printing techniques at such an early age.
- I have always been very interested in graphic art techniques, I experimented a lot with printmaking in the late 1980s, whilst still a student. Then there was a long interruption, but in the last few years working with an etching press has once again become for me the most important activity to which I have come as a result of working in photography. Yet there are things that are far more important than the choice of technique. My father always told me that the main thing was to think about composition. When young, such a conceptual task requires a great deal of very serious effort and explanation to the person who is trying to create.
Talking about impressions of childhood and adolescence, I must mention another thing: throughout my school years I attended a history study group in the Hermitage, where once a week we were given lectures on the history of Art. It was a wonderful opportunity to regularly visit the museum, to see exhibitions and even sometimes speak in English. After all, the Soviet Union of the mid-1980s was not completely isolated from the rest of the world, our generation was much better informed about what was happening in the world of Art.
- When did the camera come into your life as a direct participant of events?
- Many people who grew up in the Soviet Union were involved in photography at an amateur level, they developed, printed something, but this never interested me. I made a small series of works using photography for the first time in 1997: I photographed frames of military newsreel from the TV screen and then worked with conventional colour prints. When I started my first major photographic project, “Fables”, then I had not imagined that I would use the technique of black and white photography. I had ideas on how to design the composition, but how it was to be processed was a very big problem. As a result, I photographed only on black and white film and the photographs were printed for me by a professional, with whom I spent the whole day locked away in the darkroom, and the work went like this – add a little more here, reduce this a little, make this darker... In fact, my first photographic works were not printed by me, but under my supervision. I then worked on them, coloured them by hand. Later, of course, I acquired my own equipment and gradually learned how to do it all myself.
- How do you manage to get this effect of natural simplicity, clarity in your photographs? How do you generally prepare, compose a frame? What do you imagine in advance, what comes to you during the process?
- The work, for convenience, can be divided into several stages. First I must have an idea, I need to build a textual composition in my mind. The next stage is to set it up directly in front of the camera. This part of the work is very much tied to the opportunities that are present at that particular time and place. I always hurry to implement an idea if it seems that it has all that is necessary, because this chance may disappear never to return. I started by using as models my friends who had never been in such a role before, but I also work with people who have experience as actors – we are talking about the members of the rock band NOM and, in the first place, their front man, who is known by the name Tourist and who has appeared in my works a record number of times. It is very easy to work with him – he instantly understands what I need and does everything with immense dedication and readiness to undergo any form of self-torment for the sake of Art. Perhaps, from this point of view, the most difficult was when Tourist hung suspended by one leg. He hung for a few seconds, and Nikolai Kopeikin and I, in turns, had to manage in time to pose as an artist at the easel.
- Do you know, incidentally, that such methods were used by classical artists from time to time? For crucifixion pictures the sitters were tied by the arms and legs.
- Amongst the most difficult and dangerous things to stage were the works using a bear. Fortunately no one was injured, but the risk was very high – just one movement of its paw is enough to make a man a cripple. Nevertheless, in all these compositions, the scenes depicted actually took place in my studio, without the use of computer effects: the bear really sat on the bed with the girl, putting its paw on her shoulder, furthermore it was our very first joint work when we finally managed to bring the bear to my studio. Actually, I filmed how the scene of the ballerina dancing in front of the bear, sitting in an armchair, was made.
- You don’t have only staged compositions. Scenes from everyday life, newsreel footage are used in your works.
- Yes, the use of material from surrounding life in unedited form is only possible when there is a certain scenario of interpreting this material, and creating such scenarios, sometimes fantastic ones, interests me greatly. For example, the work, in which there are Klodt’s Anichkov Bridge sculptures, wrapped in cloths. They’re interesting for me not just as strange, mystifying compositions – it was necessary that this scene was accompanied by the ancient Roman saying that a man without religion is a horse without a bridle.
Or the series “Tarot Decks” – this is, in fact, a series about the ways of selecting material and about the scenarios of its interpretation. The “Chariot” card from the deck “Unfinished European Projects” was made using a Second World War photograph, in which a German machine is breaking up railway tracks.
- What, in your opinion, is generally the relation of classical art and photography? Since this is one of your key dialogues. It cannot simply be attributed to postmodernism.
- You’re right. There is the art of composition. The main compositional methods were designed and developed for painting. When photography became yet another technique of obtaining an image, all traditions and classical methods of creating a composition also became available to this sphere of activity, here they are absolutely applicable and organic. And I think that I work within a particular tradition.
- You create a few stages that lead to photography and only after – to painting. That to which you have come today is the fruit of a strange path from almost everyday photography to painting: not the usual imitation of the photograph in painting, as did the hyperrealists. But it is as if you are coming from the opposite side, building up layers of estrangement, the technological handmade complication of photography to the level of painting. This is practically the “easeling-up” of the photograph, the transformation of it into a painting. How do you see this yourself?
- For me the most crucial and interesting is the arrangement of the text elements of the composition. This can be compared to how music is composed for a musical work, which can then be performed in very different ways. If you look at what has been done over the past ten years (that is how long I have been working in photography), then I have made works using not only rare alternative processes. My first series are gelatin silver print photographs, toned, hand-coloured, but, in general, they are absolutely traditional. I also have colour works, – such as “Grammatological Approach”, which exclude manual treatment and the making of unique effects. The most important is always the text, the interpretation, the conceptual side.
How I use the photographic techniques accessible to me is determined by my experience as an artist who has worked in painting and printmaking. After having worked exclusively with gelatin silver printing for several years, I wanted to try something else, some alternative processes of which I had very little knowledge at that time. In America, I was able to meet the manufacturers who produced the chemicals for these photographic processes, who proved to be quite open to having a long and detailed talk with me on the phone, telling me what to do and how. It turned out that for me bromoil is the most natural technique. Unlike other processes that, in general, are easy to master using the instructions, in the bromoil technique very much depends on exactly how a person handles all the materials used. Initially, I decided to try bromoil because the description of this technique reminded me of the use of oil paints – it proved to be the most flexible technique that provides the greatest scope for interpreting the image. This made it possible to link my photography with all that I had done before, precisely from the point of view of technique. About two years ago I managed, as it were, to come full circle, when I learned to transfer bromoil onto canvas, thus obtaining, underpainting, made with oil paints, but based on a photographic image.
This is a unique situation, a true synthesis of photography, printed graphics and painting. In such a way I can use all the experience that I possess as an artist.
- You have given more than a full answer to my question about technique. But in any of your works there is a large number of layers and all are important. I would like us to move to the content layer. Manneristic subject matter often determines your imagery – animals baring their teeth, skeletons, a sort of Kunstkammera. Surely this is done consciously and refers associatively to such authors as Witkin or Saudek (a whole series has even been dedicated to Witkin). Where does this come from in you? Is this rather personal language connected with some esoteric subject matter or with radical content?
- I am certainly interested in the subjects you are speaking about, but this is again the result of childhood experience rather than having been impressed by someone’s art. I grew up in a city of fascinating museums, and if we talk about my interest in anatomical objects, it is probably largely a result of being acquainted with the famous collection of artefacts brought from Europe by Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century, to which the public always had access. This, of course, is the Kunstkammera, the museum, directly referred to in Krylov’s fable “Curious”. The work on the theme of this fable is my very first photographic work, and I would like to discuss it in more detail. This fable is a story about impressions from visiting the museum. I decided to use my own life story of how once, back in my childhood, I was completely shocked by one of the exhibits: in the Naval Museum, which was then located adjacent to the already mentioned Kunstkammera, I saw a piece of treated human skin. There was a special stand dedicated to the Nazi atrocities, where torture instruments, knuckle-dusters, a piece of netting made of human hair were also exhibited. It is surprising: we grew up in the USSR where there were no horror movies, but such exhibits were on show without any age restrictions.
So, 20 years after I had seen it in my childhood, I managed to find this piece of skin and photograph it for my work. The exhibition no longer existed, it had been dismantled in the early 1990s.
If we talk about my interest in anatomical objects, it is necessary to point out that the study of anatomy was given much attention in the Academy, where I studied: we spent a lot of time on drawing bones, skulls, on studying muscles. My first graphic series, created in 1989, with which my independent work began, was called “Anatomy” and was dedicated to the teaching of anatomy at the Academy of Fine Arts. But I also returned to this subject later. It’s funny that when I was a student, we used to have lessons on the history of the Communist Party in that same anatomy auditorium, amongst the closets with skeletons and bones, for some reason no other place was found.
- How, by the way, important for you is irony in Art and do you separate your irony from the typical postmodernist mockery, the turning of things inside out?
- I am not at all interested in it, especially comparing my irony with someone else’s. When I manage to build or to present in my works a certain view of things, to what extent it is perceived as ironic or tragic depends on who the viewer is. I have had many examples where one and the same works caused absolutely opposite reactions – some people are horrified, others laugh. It is interesting to observe which reactions Art can cause in people, how one and the same thing can move from one context to another – I have whole series, devoted to how fragments of images are placed in alien contexts, offering the most incredible options for interpretation.
- How do you imagine the ideal viewer?
- What does it mean to be an ideal viewer? Any viewer is interesting, but the more we have in common the closer he can be to those positions from which I see things. But in our time, the presence of some common things – perception, understanding – is extremely problematic, and yet the circle of people for whom our area of activity is of any interest at all is very small.
- Do you not think that this is a serious problem for Art?
- This situation occurs when Art ceases to fulfil a role clearly defined by the society. Just a few decades ago, in our country, the artist could become “a fighter of the ideological front”, and the existent ideology, which formulated the tasks of Art, also prepared and educated the audience. In such a scenario there arises a tremendous amount of restrictions, limitations beyond which one is not allowed to go. But now we have the complete freedom of so-called “self-expression”, an unlimited range of ways of constructing works of art, but, in my opinion, authors understand each other with difficulty. The opportunity to work for a target audience is completely eliminated – these audiences do not exist at all. There are separate small disconnected groups of people, and it is very difficult sometimes to articulate what they have in common.
- Let’s see who will come to the museum to your show.
- I think that there will be too few unfamiliar faces.