By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
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.
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.
Nikolay Vladimirovich Polissky was born in Moscow on January 5th, 1957. In 1982 he graduated from the Mukhina Higher School of Industrial Design in Leningrad, where he studied at the Ceramics Department. He was a member of the Mitki group of artists, with whom he participated in exhibitions in many cities all over the world. The Mitki are a group of about 20 artists from St Petersburg; they take their name from one of their number, Dmitry Shagin. The group formed at the beginning of the 1980s, and 1985 saw the publication of the book Mitki, which may be regarded as an expanded version of the movement’s manifesto. The Mitki became the focus for a distinctive social and aesthetic movement, whose members exercised themselves in fine art, prose, poetry, and life style. It was not long before this art project spread beyond St Petersburg, with the formation of the Moscow Mitki and, a little later, the New Mitki.
Artist Nikolay Polissky, who moved to the village of Nikola-Lenivets in Kaluzhskaya Region in 1989 and creates art objects in collaboration with local residents and in unity with a magnificent landscape, would seem to be an ideal embodiment of the view, now found only on the pages of Soviet school textbooks, that the art of Russian artists, writers, composers, and so on necessarily expresses love for the Russian people and Russian nature. 19th-century Russian realism, from which spring schoolchildren’s ideas of the classics in art, indeed provides easy confirmation of this love — whether in the form of canonical descriptions of nature, landscape paintings, or generic scenes in which it has always been possible to see a sympathetic account of the life of simple people. And even classic Russian modernist artists such as Bubnovy valet or the Cubofuturists can be made to fit this interpretation, given that the Russian Avant-garde for a long time remained simultaneously both futuristic and close to the Russian soil — oriented both on the future and on archaic local sources. In fact, even the Utopian projects of the revolutionary Avant-garde, who no longer called people to get excited about the landscape and ordinary people, but to radically recreate both nature and human beings, could not destroy this view completely.
Ivan Kramskoy, the architect whose pen was rather more accurate than his brush, wrote of the great Russian landscape painter Ivan Shishkin: “Shishkin is the milestone of the Russian landscape”. What he meant was that Russian landscape painting prior to Shishkin and after him were two completely different art forms. Before Shishkin the landscape was a respectable picture that hung above the desk in the study. After him it was an epic image of Russia, an object of national pride. Recalling this quotation, I could say that Nikolay Polissky is the milestone of Russian land art. Before Polissky land art in Russia was a series of experiments by fringe artists. But now, in his wake, it has become a matter of landscape festivals that gather crowds of people in their thousands. This is a fundamental shift in how modern art functions in Russia. And it is why I call him a milestone.