A Defunct Collective Finds Its Muse

Published: June 24, 2010

NIKOLA-LENIVETS, RUSSIA — The setting is like something out of a 19th-century Russian novel about artists, aristocrats and their acolytes mingling at a pastoral country estate.
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James Hill for The New York Times

Nikolai Polissky, the Russian artist, by the Lighthouse on the river Ugra in the village of the Nikola-Lenivets in the Kaluga region south of Moscow.

Nikola-Lenivets, about a four bumpy hour’s drive south of Moscow in the Kaluga region, has inspired the land-art creations of Nikolai Polissky, and has become both a magnet for Russian contemporary artists and a name on the international art scene.

Mr. Polissky and villagers-turned-artisans under his training have crafted installations for the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and for the museum of modern art in Luxembourg — a wooden rendition of the Large Hadron Collider — and deer for Philippe Starck’s revamp of Le Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, which are to ship out on July 1.


Milena Orlova: Moving heavens and earth

Nikolai Polissky was born in 1957 and first trained in ceramics in St Petersburg, becoming one of the group of Mitki artists there. The movement named after the artist Dmitry Shagin, has been described as ‘an ironic hybrid of Tolstoyism and hippy philosophy.’ It set the mood for Nikolai when he moved to the village Nikola-Lenivets, some 200 kilometers west of Moscow. There he co-opted villagers to work with him building large structures, often imitating famous foreign monuments, cobbled together out of humble local materials including snow, wood and hay. The first work was an army of 220 snowman with carrot noses and helmets made of buckets.


Mariya Sedova: Interview

What is the connection between land art and architecture?

Land art as art is, I think, something altogether ancient. It’s something from the earth, something from our ancestors, which means that it died a long time ago. For us it is a new and unfamiliar spectacle. Of course, you can call it a kolkhoz [collective farm], but then no one now has any need to create a kolkhoz. What we need is to do what is interesting, that which enchants and which forces the viewer to get to grips with the universal, mass nature of the project. In Old Russia, I suppose, all this cost a lot of money and all the folk crafts that were recreated at the end of the 19th century were sponsored by large fortunes and wealthy individuals. Talashkino, Gzhel’, Dulevo: all this was created so as to force the Russian narod [common people] to work for its own good. And for this reason Russian folk art underwent a renaissance and lives to this day in shawls, matryoshki, wooden spoons, and so on. But for us this is a spectacle, a Russian folk festival. It’s not even from the age of Old Russia, but from a proto-age, a primeval period – like the shaman dances of our distant ancestors. It’s commonly thought that cliff paintings with bisons are the most ancient art, but perhaps this status really belongs to dancing at the fireside and ceremonial cremation. Universal unification.