SERGEJ PROKOFIEV CREATES SYMBOLS FOR POSTERITY, 2022
Recorded on March 15, 2022
Published at foljeton.dk
Currently, Russian artist Sergej Prokofiev is mostly concerned with getting out of Russia. He lives in Moscow with his wife, and they hope to leave the country soon. Perhaps towards Sweden, as soon as they have a plan and enough money. But travel is expensive and difficult, and the situation changes from day to day. So when Kunsthal Charlottenborg removed his art works from the 2022 Spring Exhibition in early March after awarding him their Solo Prize, he experienced it as a kind of a “side phenomenon“ to his more acute circumstances.
Sergej Prokofiev makes contemporary art; everything from video works to sculptures, 3D prints, performances and installations. He is the namesake of a celebrated Russian composer, and an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, the Russian political system and the invasion of Ukraine. His works – and his entire career – are inextricably linked to Russia’s political reality and its great popular resistance.
The decision to remove Prokofiev’s works from the exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg was made after Danish Minister of Culture Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (S) issued a general call for cultural institutions to “take a critical look at what and who they have in their programme“ in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, however, quickly ran into headwinds as Prokofiev is known to be explicitly critical of the system. His works soon returned to the museum for the same reason.
The brief affair entered a wider discussion in Denmark about boycotting of Russian art. But Sergej Prokofiev himself holds no grudge. In fact, he expected something like this to happen. Besides, he doesn’t feel he has any moral right to complain, given the gravity of the situation, he tells Føljeton when we speak to him on a WhatsApp connection to Moscow on Tuesday.
The regime must be judged
Sergej Prokofiev won the Solo Prize for his two video works Fireworks on the Swamp and Fan of the Land. Both works show fireworks being set off in the free and peaceful Russian countryside. Unchanging spaces disturbed by explosions. Fireworks have historically been used by Russian leaders to celebrate the state and its power. But in nature it is taken out of context; a thinly veiled critique of the symbolic language of power.
Prokofiev’s current project is a series of small sculptures that he draws with a so-called 3D pen. Invader, the series is called. The sculptures consist of black, knotted string-like lines that form semi-coherent figures. They almost look like bodies falling apart. He himself calls the figures “burnt Russian military“.
“Actually, for me it started in 2015, when the battles for Donetsk Airport had begun. During the years from 2015 to 2017 I drew the war at Donetsk Airport with a 3D pen,“ Prokofiev says.
“It was very important for me to do that, because I knew there was no one else involved in Russian art who would do it. Invader is a continuation of this big project, because now Putin has chosen to turn all of Ukraine into Donetsk Airport, to burn it down, destroy buildings, kill people.“
Prokofiev does not hold back in calling Putin’s military “special operation“ a war. Not on Instagram, either, although that sort of thing can have legal consequences in Russia. But the fear of being punished doesn’t stand in the way: “I’m worried about it. But I just can’t be silent. That’s it.“
He calls for more of his colleagues to dare speak out against Putin: “Those people who see themselves as representatives of Russian culture, they should say something. They should speak and they should judge. They should speak through their art, their performances, their articles, against this war. The regime should be condemned.“
On Monday evening, the news editor of the Russian state channel Kanal 1, Marina Ovshannikova, interrupted a broadcast by appearing behind the newsreader with a sign reading “Stop the war!“ She then shared a video on social media saying she was ashamed to have contributed to the propaganda. According to Prokofiev, the Russians have something to learn from Marina Ovshannikova: “It was a very brave and very important act, because from her position it’s kind of her personal redemption. I think she should be considered as an example of what we can do in a situation like this.“
Sergej Prokofiev can have his art shown in Europe and in this way speak to an audience about the war and about Russia. But not all his fellow artists enjoy the same privilege. They must take other paths to express their disgust:
“Some of my friends work at night with anti-war graffiti. I hang up anti-war stickers on public transport. There are groups that give direct support to Ukrainian refugees in Russia, collecting things for them, and you can support with money those who are trying to get out of Ukraine. But some of my colleagues are frightened. They are depressed.“
The darkest time
Sergej Prokofiev’s work is driven by a hope and a desire for a better Russia. His entire practice is inspired by the huge protests that took place in Moscow in 2011-2012, when thousands of Russians took to the streets to demonstrate against fraud in the electoral system.
“Actually, I became an artist in the wake of the protest movements, and I used those energies to make my art. It may not change anything, I don’t know. I just know that it was my decision. I remember the second protest in Bolotnaya Square on December 10, 2011, when I made a strict decision that I would be in my studio and I would produce my art, and so did the Block sculpture, and that was the straight beginning of my practice.“
Block looks like a big luminous barrier fence. It’s made of fluorescent tubes – like a blockade of toxic mercury. A luminous reminder for posterity of Russia’s massive demonstrations. According to Sergej Prokofiev, this is partly where the value of art can be found in a time of crisis:
“First of all, I see it as documentation for history. And also, art can produce bright symbols that can unite people in protest.” But Block is from 2011, and the mood has changed recently: “I remember that state of mind in the beginning, almost ten years ago, and at that time there was lots of hope in there. Now it’s more fatalistic. But I can still feel some energy growing,“ Prokofiev says.
General censorship makes for an unforgiving life as a producing artist in Russia. That’s why Sergej needs to get back to planning his trip out of Russia. But despite the fatalism and fear, he has hope.
“… I think we’re going to be lucky.“
You sound optimistic?
“Yes, yes I am very optimistic. The darkest time is just before the sun comes up. That’s my style.” / Jon Kvist Sommer