Interview with one of the most recognizable and famous Russian art photographer аbout the artist’s mission, the mission of art, inspiration, self-censorship. The View of the modern art from within

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. From the private archive

Bleek Magazine: What’s your own definition of your work? Identification / self-identification.

Vadim Gushchin: Formally, this is still life photography, because I deal with specially arranged objects, captured with a camera in a photostudio. The final result is photographic as well – a print on photo paper.

Going into details, however, my work doesn’t always fit into the scheme of this genre in its traditional interpretation as literally still life. Formally, for example, in most cases there is only one object or even its fragment – instead of a group of objects. At the same time, these are almost two-dimensional flat compositions. The space, where the object is situated, is unified – that is some surface on the black background. Besides, I believe in creating a series of work, which is very widespread in contemporary photography. All these make great difference between my compositions and both classical heritage of still life and modernistic still life photos of the 20th century – things, that are primarily associated with still life.

Yet, the most essential distinction lies in my totally diverse attitude towards captured objects. I’m not trying to catch the harmony of things in their interconnection or to reproduce the invisible human presence. In this sense, my still life is ‘dehumanized’.

When shooting the object, I’m trying to abstract from it. It is no more than a framework for me, to which something bigger can be attached. The object transforms into archetype without distinct individual features. It turns into an abstract concept, an idea, into a recognizable internationally unified sign: such as a book, an envelope or a pill. That is also the reason for the utmost bareness of the set within which the object is placed. The scene as well becomes an abstract, unreal metaphysical space.

When shooting the object, I’m trying to abstract from it. It is no more than a framework for me, to which something bigger can be attached. The object transforms into archetype without distinct individual features. It turns into an abstract concept, an idea, into a recognizable internationally unified sign: such as a book, an envelope or a pill.

The interpretation of such an abstract image occurs primarily through color. Color becomes the main participant of the mise-en-scène and the basis for everything else. Color, attached to the framework of the object, in addition to the emotional coloring, infuses it with the specific functionality. Color imposes on the object a function of a cultural reference to something bigger, known for a long time, but maybe somewhat forgotten. My pictures should evoke cultural memory.

I’d like to define my style as ‘abstract object photography’ or ‘object abstraction’. I wouldn’t use the term ‘still life’ here, because it confuses the viewer. Saying this, I signify my attempt to create the ultimate abstract image by means of classical sharp photography, without any alternative processes or soft focus lenses. The significance of my work is in its total photographic quality.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Colored Envelopes #3, 2010

Bleek Magazine: How do you understand the goal of art?

Vadim Gushchin: There’s no definite answer to this question, because the perception of what it is considered to be art and its purpose is very subjective – from purely utilitarian ‘Art belongs to the people’ by Vladimir Lenin to utterly idealistic ‘All art is quite useless’ by Oscar Wilde.

Criteria of what can be called art are very changeable today, depending on the market, fashion and politics. This makes broad interpretations possible. Any ‘making’ can be named art, as it has been in the case of the punk-prayer or Tracey Emin’s bed. Whereas ‘creativity’ is a kind of spiritual practice and presupposes some mystical flash of inspiration from above. However today it matters nothing at all. In fact, anything can be considered art today, if only art experts call it so.

I’m not inclined to put the word ‘experts’ in quotes and thus to mark that all contemporary art today is merely a product of speculation in art criticism. There are many truly interesting things, but the tendency to a certain substitution of concepts is obvious even at the highest institutional level.

In this case, everyone defines the borders of ‘real’ art for himself. As I see it, art should anyway involve emotional perception. Figuratively speaking, ‘a song without words’ should sound.

However today it matters nothing at all. In fact, anything can be considered art today, if only art experts call it so.

I do not quite believe in the social function of art, because the TV and show business have driven it to the far periphery. Visual art, just like poetry and academic music, has irrevocably lost its former influence, its role in formation of consciousness of modern man is insignificant today, it has become a marginal realm. No picture today will have such an impact on the society as ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’ or ‘The Appearance of Christ Before the People’ had in their time, unless of course the exhibition turns into a scandal. However, scandalous resonance is more closely aligned with  show businessanyway. .

Art has largely preserved and enhanced its decorative function. Wealthy people are buying works to decorate their homes with something truly original. This is considered a good  thing and explains the great amount of private galleries, where art is exhibited and sold.

In countries with developed cultural policy, contemporary artists design interiors of government buildings. For example, The Reichstag building is decorated with Gerhard Richter’s works. He also created a large stained-glass window in the Gothic Cologne Cathedral.

True collectors are unique, they are few and far between. Museums, that are buying works for their collections, can be named among them. They are putting sacred meaning into the art that they are collecting, endowing it with sacred function, marking it as something that should be carefully stored and passed on from one generation to another. As something, that forms the foundation of cultural heritage.

I’d like to think that sacred function is the most important.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Circle of Reading #1, 2010

Bleek Magazine: The mechanism of creativity, so called inspiration, how important is it and is it necessary at all?

Vadim Gushchin: An artist is a kind of factory for utilizing experience. The artist transforms their impressions, their experience into the product of the work, somehow interpreting in the creative process what was seen and heard. What is called inspiration is just the state of utmost repletion, ecstasy and illumination, when the overfilled factory itself powers the process on. This theory is proved by the fact that inspiration comes in cycles.

To be able to create anything an artist needs to soak up impressions and emotions. The question of where to get obtain impressions and emotions is purely individual. Some people travel, others go to the museums or sit quietly in their studios, listening to music and reading books. Formerly in the creative unions, the so-called material-gathering trips and houses of creativity existed, but now each artist arranges everything all by himself.

On the other hand, inspiration is a relative thing still, it is not always clear, where it begins and where it ends. It is impossible to rely on it, especially if you consider yourself a professional artist and have to work constantly on a new series. You cannot afford yourself lengthy downtime while waiting for some creative upsurge. Yet the work goes much better with it, and it is highly desirable. There is no need to wait specially for inspiration; it may come in the process. Some artists are creating work each day from 10am to 5pm, just like office workers; they do their work regardless of their internal state on the principle of ‘nulla dies sine linea’. However, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

An artist is a kind of factory for utilizing experience. The artist transforms their impressions, their experience into the product of the work, somehow interpreting in the creative process what was seen and heard.

This is such a complex mechanism, when you start doing one thing, then quite unexpectedly your attention shifts and you suddenly realize that you should do something entirely different, as if a kind of chemical reaction proceeds inside you. Colors become unusually bright and everything you see seems slightly modified, stories are being composed unintentionally; you begin to shoot with a special feeling, with joy; things are going swimmingly; and when the picture comes out, you look at it in wonder and think: ‘Wow, that’s it!’

One artist, an acquaintance of mine, a very good painter compares the state of inspiration, when the perception the world alters, with infatuation, when the lover sees  as his object of admiration the most beautiful woman, no matter if she is not a beauty at all or even quite plain.

The creative process is an attempt to represent your own worldview, but it is even better if it becomes an attempt to create your own version of the world or of some little world at list, where you feel comfortable, because this little world is your extension.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Pills #3, 201

Bleek Magazine: What is the mission of an artist?

Vadim Gushchin: I’d like to focus your attention on the metaphysical aspect of the matter, skipping the practical side of the artist’s functioning in the mechanism of art and culture, where his task is quite clear.

I think it’s quite appropriate in this context to recall the teaching of Daniil Andreyev, in which he uses the term ‘Egregor’ to denotethe formations of another material nature, arising over the large communities out of some mental discharge of humanity. Egregors are deprived of spiritual monads, but have temporarily concentrated volitional charge and some equivalent of consciousness. Any state has its own egregor.

I take all this as a kind of metaphysical dome similar to the ozone layer of the planet, on the size and strength of which the spiritual health and power of the city, nation, state and entire world depends. Perhaps the same can be defined as Vernadsky’s ‘noosphere’ – the covering, formed by human consciousness.

The significance of this dome is immense. All material processes and progress depend on it during both peace and wartime. The artist’s task is to improve and strengthen the noosphere. That is his mission.

In the midst of the war, two avant-garde, elite composers whose works were not perceived by the most part of soviet people suddenly were awarded with the Stalin Prizes for outstanding work in the field of literature and art. In 1942, Shostakovich was awarded for the 7th Symphony, and Prokofiev in 1943 – for the 7th Sonata. And whereas the symphony of Shostakovich really inspired people at that time, the piano sonata of Prokofiev still remains rarely performed. Stalin as the chief art critic and the mystically sensible man had perfectly understood the true meaning of these works. They were metaphysically bringing the victory closer.

The artist’s task is to improve and strengthen the noosphere. That is his mission. Participating in the artistic life, everyone makes his own contribution to this good cause within his powers. I think Marianne von Werefkin, one of my favorite artists, spoke of the same thing: ‘The artist’s only task is to maintain the sacred fire of art’. Mores are milder and life is different in a town, where a picture gallery and a philharmonic are located, than in another, where they are absent as useless. And whether people attend them or not, is not the only thing, that matters.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Paper #5, 2013

Bleek Magazine: If the artist’s mission is ‘to improve and strengthen the noosphere’, then on the one hand, it is a great responsibility, but on the other, as a consequence, it is the inner limit. Is it self-censorship? How does it manifest itself? Does it really exist? Doesn’t it conflict with some concept of creative freedom?

Vadim Gushchin: Yes, the artist’s mission is to improve the noosphere, but his responsibility does not increase because of that, ‘cause the existence of this mission is only an ideal. Any artist would like to create something that will serve for the common good. It seems to me then, it is not for an artist to decide whether his opuses improve the noosphere or not. They may not improve. But an artist is working because he cannot help shooting, and not because of any speculative benefit of his works.

The responsibility for what you have done certainly exists; a man generally is responsible for all his actions. Everyone decides himself where to draw the line in art, which means the inner voice becomes the chief censor. This is an important personal question and everyone answers it himself: how far are you willing to go in your creativity and are you willing to break the moral principles of the culture that have brought you up. Alien principles are always easier to break.

That does not put a limit on your creative freedom, because what lies beyond your ideas of acceptable doesn’t belong to the realms of art. Far from every artist-actionist would hatchet icons or slaughter a pig in a gallery; however that does not mean he would feel himself restricted in his freedom.

On the other hand, people with orthodox views can get irritated at a mere nothing and begin to see in your works something intolerable – so you should be ready for unexpected attacks and be able to stand up to them, defending your point of view.

But in any case, if you consider yourself an artist, you enable yourself to be more free and to demonstrate a somewhat fevered mind, which by no means implies all-permissiveness.

People in general tend to be mistaken, to take a bad for a good and vice versa or to make inner compromises for the sake of creative ideas. Remember Leni Riefenstahl and her films. However, everything is quite ambiguous. What about Wagner? Was he guilty as well in something like this? I think that the main criterion of the responsibility should be the artist’s sincerity. In this case, a masterpiece can appear, such as the poem ‘The Twelve’ by Blok, in spite of its author’s delusion about what is happening. Opportunistic hackwork is seen immediately.

However, for us as art-photographers these questions are not so urgent, so far, we are not involved in the ideological projects of the state level; we do not bear this kind of responsibility and can quietly carry on our creative work, answering only to ourselves.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Untitled #1, 2013.

Bleek Magazine: What is the roleof music in the creative process?

Vadim Gushchin: Looking at the works of one artist or another, you can guess what kind of music he prefers, with what he is mostly in keeping. An artist cannot be entirely indifferent to music.

In the history of art, there are many examples of the direct connection between music and painting, when the artist created and named his paintings under the influence of particular pieces of music. For example, ‘Impression III, Concert’ by Wassily Kandinsky is a reflection on the music of Schoenberg, or ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’ by Piet Mondrian reproduces in color and rhythm the jazz rhythms of New York.

But I mean not only such precious transfer of one onto another, but also the total influence of music on the artist’s mind.

I think the artist’s preferences in music, what he listens to, are somewhat determined by his visual style. His audio library does not form spontaneously, and not only according to his mood, but is adjusted for his vision also. That means music, no matter how he likes it, is still secondary to the main creative activity for him, if he is not a professional musician at the same time. But if he chooses the right music, that fits his work and, what is more important, his ideas well, the artist receives it as a powerful stimulator, and the music in its turn can become the subject of his work. That is why you should always be in search of the right music.

Music, chosen by the photographer himself, is often played in the exhibition hall to intensify the ‘sounding’ of his works. It can work as a kind of hint, a code for better understanding. For the advanced, inspired viewer music can clarify many things.

Therefore, the music can be ‘working’, in that it is the one used in the current workflow, when the artist is creating a particular series. It conforms fully to his state and worldview. But that doesn’t mean you should listen to it every time while shooting; that should be understood in a broad sense.

To switch over you should listen to something else, not related to the present moment, not the ‘working’ music, but beautiful and beloved, that has already passed the working stage and become just your own music from your past.

Nowadays music is commonly used in art projects as an accompaniment to a video or a photo series as a pianist in a silent movie. Music, chosen by the photographer himself, is often played in the exhibition hall to intensify the ‘sounding’ of his works. It can work as a kind of hint, a code for better understanding. For the advanced, inspired viewer music can clarify many things. And here it is important not to overdo it, a track needs great care, otherwise rolling down into vulgarity and violence over the music is inevitable. Poor ‘Adagio’ from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, who just didn’t rape it! The wrong, mechanically selected soundtrack produces the opposite effect, looks vulgar, pseudointellectual and causes protest and rejection.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushin. Notebook #2, 2013

Bleek Magazine: How do you understand the term ‘art photography’?

Vadim Gushin: In the broad sense, art photography as the generic term, used to denote various kinds of artistic photography, is a kind of visual art, where artistic statement is reproduced through the media of photography.

Art photography doesn’t have any clearly defined functional purpose (exhibition activities not included). That means it is not a report, an advertisement or some kind of technical shoot. Art photography is something made for its own sake, to fulfill one’s own needs and artistic ambitions or for self-expression. That certainly does not mean that ordered shooting cannot become an independent artistic statement. But that is rather an exception to the rule. To get out such narrow bounds of professional order one should demonstrate outstanding abilities. A mere handful of people succeed in this.

Art photography as opposed to documentary, for example, has a relative connection with subjective reality, even if methods of documentary shooting are used. The main criterion of art photography is a perceptible alteration of reality, escape from reality and emotional transformation of the realm into the imaginary. And its main virtue is just in its ‘photographic’ quality, that the image you get has its foundation in reality, ‘cause it has been photographed, that means taken from real life. The same happens in dreams, where fantastic images and persons involved are rooted in reality.

The main criterion of art photography is a perceptible alteration of reality, escape from reality and emotional transformation of the realm into the imaginary.

That is why dreamy esthetics areso popular in art photography: computer manipulations with photo-images and alternative processes of developing film and printing photos. The underside of manipulations is moving away from ‘photographic’ quality, from reality, which transforms a photograph into a surreal collage. Montages, with all their merits, are still not completely convincing; they are synthetic as artificial flowers. With rare exceptions, one can always see the ‘seams’.

Whereas for me the most interesting is preciously the utmost simplicity and distinctness of straight photography, when the technical merits of the medium, such as extreme sharpness, texture, angle, optical perspective, light and so on are used to the fullest and there is no need to embroider the image with additional manipulations.

One of the qualities of art photography is also its picturesqueness or ‘visuality’ as opposed to pure conceptuality. I mean the continuation of the classical tradition of the fine arts, the law of which cannot be escaped: nobody has canceled the perspective. As if, art photography has taken over the baton from realistic painting and is replacing the traditional ‘picture’ on the new stage of development.

Vadim Gushchin

Vadim Gushchin. Monograph of a Great Artist #2, 2014

Bleek Magazine: The place of art photography in contemporary art and artistic life.

Vadim Gushchin: Photography is much in demand today as one of the media in contemporary art. Yet we talk not just about the media of photography, but about art photography as its independent branch. And then we have to accept the fact that its place is not as significant as one would like it to be, at least in our country.

There are few photographic galleries here, but their number is determined by the social demand for art photography. And this demand is low, ‘cause there is no developed tradition of collecting photos, it is just starting to take shape.

Large public institutions like The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, The MMOMA or The Russian Museum have begun to collect photography, and that is very gratifying, as is the fact that thick art magazines have begun to devote the whole issues to it. Yet exhibitions of Russian contemporary photography in major museums are still rare, perhaps excepting those carried on the program of Photobiennale, led by The Moscow House of Photography. In large group projects of recent time, as for example ‘Open Day’ of The Museum of Modern Art or ‘Invitation to Dinner’ in The Russian Museum, in which I have happened to participate, art photography is not considered to be something equivalent to ‘general’ media, but is exhibiting rather in addition to them. ‘And now look, we have photography as well’. But, admittedly, this is a fair approach – art photography has not gained the desired weight yet.

In any case, art photography has its own specific viewer, whose life is usually connected with photography somehow. This is still a small group of competent people, real lovers of art photography. But their amount and the popularity of photography will grow.

It is different in the case of documentary photography. It is far more accepted and occupies a professional niche, upon which no one else can infringe because of its particularity. It is a priori recognized as a part of contemporary art, that presumes just slightly modified form of its representation – fashionable nowadays light boxes or huge color prints instead of traditional photos in passe-partout and frames. But this does not change the essence of documentary photography. That is why contemporary art galleries have long been working with documentary photographers in the same way as with any other artists.

As for art photography, its main problem is that it doesn’t have its own clearly defined field. It has one foot in documentary, as technical, recording art, and another in the territory of contemporary art, where the canons of criticism are quite different. Visual perfection of the picture, its ‘visuality’, so desired by an artist-photographer in his work, is pushed to the sidelines, whereas the ideological and conceptual statement becomes the main estimable criterion as it is for technical art. And yet another problem of art photography is that this statement is often very blurred or entirely unobvious, because ‘visuality’ refers to a very broad perception based on emotions. Besides, art photography is not as multimedia as it is required. Today a series of photos on the wall seems not relevant enough, and often its ‘relevance’ is enhanced by various artificial methods: huge size, inclusion of photos in the installation, combination with video, light boxes.

In any case, art photography has its own specific viewer, whose life is usually connected with photography somehow. This is still a small group of competent people, real lovers of art photography. But their amount and the popularity of photography will grow.

Vadim Gushchin was born in Novosibirsk in 1963. In 1986 he graduated at the Moscow Energy Institute. He devoted himself to artistic activity since 1988. He lives and works in Moscow.

© Bleek Magazine. Translation: Darya Kuznetsova.