(17.10.2019) Natalya Serkova: I'd like to start by asking about the human body prints on the fabrics you make. As soon as I saw them for the first time, I had a clear association between them and a Japanese phenomenon called kodokushi. The latter is a word invented by the Japanese to call the silhouette spot, which remains on a horizontal surface after a human corpse has been lying on it for a long time. In this respect, kodokushi can be called a symbol of death, and a sign of decomposition and transformation, and quite a prosaic evidence of the problem of solitary people in Japan. What are the markings on the fabrics that you produce and what are they meant to reveal?
(06.11.2019) Andrew Birk: Hi Natalya and Vitaly. First of all, thank you for this opportunity, and for the hard work you do to provide artists with a platform. I’m sorry I have been so slow to respond to your initial question. I have a tiny baby at home and I’m still getting used to the new sleep pattern.
I had never heard of Kodokushi, but I can see how you made the association. When I started making these Life Shroud paintings, I was actually looking at the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth that Jesus Christ was supposedly buried in, so your read is not far off.
Both my paintings and these phenomena share similar material profiles and represent documented bodily events, but my desire was to flip the logic and intention behind said references.
Kodokushi or lonely death, leaves behind stains on floors or furniture or in bathtubs by the decomposition of the human body; they are the dissolution of life. Similarly, the Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth imprinted by corporeal decomposition, perhaps a historically important corpus, but corpus nonetheless, static, dead. Life Shrouds, inversely, aim, among other things, to be testimonials of vitality. Clenched behind an ATV hurtling through a sodden pasture under a thunderhead with a dog barking at your heels. It sounds ridiculous and too open, but I wanted to make this work to prove to myself that I am alive. I also wanted to make something physically today, that maybe I can’t make tomorrow, if that makes sense. The parameters are very simple: dirt from the ground comes into contact with undyed denim by the means of my body moving through space, thus mark making. So far, they have been made in many places and in many ways: by sliding or rolling down hills, jumping in lakes, climbing trees, being dragged down muddy embankments, across bramble and flower patches, through long grass meadows, behind cars or SUVs or ATVs, down dry dirt or gravel roads and through city streets. To oversimplify—these works are not about pain or performance, they are about taking advantage of fleeting but readily available tools.
As for what this work reveals on a grander scale is humbly very beyond me. In my life, this work both revealed a fissure and affirmed a deep thirst to have more undistracted contact with nature, and that my life be more simple. We are our work and our work is us, and in this period of time I cut a lot of fat from everything. I am trying to figure out how to move through the burdens and privileges of society and culture and digitization and capital and entertainment, and come out the other side having made art that I can be proud of, that feels like time well spent, that equates somehow to a life well lived. We are alive only now. I know that that is so redundant, but it’s also so profoundly related to why art matters.
(20.11.2019) Vitaly Bezpalov: The topic of emotions that artists extract from practice is very interesting. A few weeks ago we were at an exhibition titled ‘Caravaggio & Bernini’ in the Viennese art history museum. It occurred to us that Caravaggio's work, in stark contrast to the rest of paintings from the same time period present in the show, gave us an impression that the artist simply despised his native medium. Carefully drawn details, backgrounds, draperies—all those things were clearly not the focus in Caravaggio's work. Because of this, we observed a very strange effect: looking at works of other authors, you saw painting, all while looking at the paintings of Caravaggio, you saw living people posing in his studio. It was a really strange effect, which probably can be linked to a certain attitude of Caravaggio towards his medium. In your opinion, what should or could be the relationship between an artist and the art and how did your attitude towards art change over time?
(03.12.2019) AB: If Caravaggio were alive today, would he be a painter? Despite his absolutely dominating mastery—maybe not. I can imagine him working as a director in a more Lars Von Trier type of place. I bet he would love Melancholia.
I try to see his work at every possible opportunity, but I'm no expert on the subject. Last year I was in Rome visiting my friend Adam Stamp and we wove around town seeing all the Caravaggio's in churches possible. That one painting with a giant horse's ass as the protagonist is both breathtaking and really drives home this irreverence toward the medium (and the context and patrons) that you mention. A lot of painters exist deeply *inside* of the logic of a painting, putting their energy towards flushing out and encapsulating the physics of the space inside the frame. This reminds me, in a way, of people who feel more liberated in Second Life than First Life, which is an interesting and understandable phenomenon. Oppositely, I feel like Caravaggio had a larger need to use his paintings as allegorical weapons with which to bite his thumb at the contemporaneous political forces of his moment, in that sense, whatever was happening inside the painting was somehow secondary to how the painting was supposed to function as a critical object in real space. It wasn’t just living people posing in his studio, it was him organizing this entire piece of theatre and putting it into shared space to say something.
Have you heard of the Infinite Monkey Theorem? That if in an infinite number of realities where an infinite number of monkeys are typing infinitely random letters on infinite keyboards, one of them will almost surely type word for word the complete works of William Shakespeare. That's what art should or could be.
My relationship with and attitude towards art has functioned in sickness and in health just like a weird twisted healthy marriage. It has been my god and my crutch. It has changed as I've accrued more experiences and lessons, as my ego has changed, as my closeness to power and hairline have come and gone, as my anger has been replaced with something more productive, as my family and sense of family and responsibility has expanded, and as I have continually (unsuccessfully) sought out autonomy and freedom. Not unlike anyone else, when I was younger I just wanted to understand myself and channel that understanding into a voice and find a platform for that voice to be heard and dialogued with but I didn’t know what that meant or required. I still don’t. It’s just not that fucking simple. And of course, I wanted to be great. Just instantly! Because I really wanted it!! Now that whole line of thinking seems like a distraction. Art still exists in all these different, simultaneous points in my life, but now I can manipulate my positionality towards it in order to put in or pull out what is needed for and from the relationship. Hopefully.
I am currently interested in using art to transmit abstract emotional moments, for example: ‘riding a bicycle fast on the edge of a slow-moving-river, through a plume of gnats on a perfect balmy evening, one flies sour into your mouth’ or ‘produce a thing right now as a natural disaster looms’ or ‘fear of missing out’.
In the long term, art is a vehicle for transmitting my life force (a compendium of what I hope is my value on Earth) to other people, and a moving set of parameters for finding and questioning my place in the world, for interacting with new and old ideas, and for documenting this whole process.
(19.01.2020) NS: Description of your relationship with art paints a picture of some natural balance in the way you interact with the world, some kind of a warm pre-established harmony. At the same time, you invoked the Infinite Monkey Theorem, that speaks about a triumph of coincidence, where the only necessity is a presence of coincidence in the world. I am very interested in this theme in relation to art objects. For example, I appreciate the fact that your work sometimes features completely, as it seems, random visual elements, like patterns of chickens on the walls of the exhibition room or the pictures with a rainbow. Therefore, I have a question in relation to your artistic method. What is your personal way of finding such random, at first glance, elements for your works and what in general do you think should be the best ratio between coincidence and necessity in art?
(14.02.2020) AB: Many years ago I was doing a lecture on the outdoor patio of an art school where I was talking about how good it is for us when our processes reject us or force unplanned deviations, when the difference between the idea in your head and however it comes out is so vast that you have to respond adequately by completely changing course, and that at that moment, it doesn’t feel like you are checking off a list, it feels like you are dancing or hunting, prime reacting. In the middle of this talk an airplane flew overhead—so low that people started speaking louder and louder, then eventually yelling to compensate. Finally we couldn’t hear anything, we watched silently as the airplane flew.
Making art is like trying to solve an equation that is shifting and slippery and moving all the time.
We bought a toy for our daughter that looks like a little house with different shaped windows on each side. A pink pentagonal block cant fit in the window made for the blue circle or the yellow square. When I am in the thick of trying to resolve a piece, I detect an abstract hole that requires a particular abstract move and I become extremely open to everything around me until I find the right abstract move. I see a shape in the mangled neck of an old olive tree that will unlock a new direction in the painting. Watchings clouds, seeing colors, feeling feelings. A particular word in a particular book or a particular song or getting stuck on a particular image in the feed. The rainbows and the fluffy baby chickens come from this open grafting process, so do a lot of less obvious things. In working this way, I am aware that I could ruin the aesthetic or conceptual substrate of the work or shift it to a place of non-recognition, but a good idea is like a virus and once you’ve had it - it embeds itself to you, impacting thought, until something is done.
Seemingly random things *are never random* & lead us in new directions, bad, or good, it doesn’t matter. New directions force new equations, new equations force new solutions. New directions, new equations, and new solutions equal growth. If it’s a process that pushes you into a new place, it’s working. Whatever works. Truly.
(14.04.2020) VB: It seems to me that your description of the process of making art is very similar to what we are increasingly starting to encounter in everyday life. The world seems to become more and more slippery and shifting, and no one can say with certainty where this shift will lead. We substitute the prefix post- for everything, but no one in fact can explain what the ‘post- era’ is. In this sense, sometimes it seems that the artist is in a better position than many people since during all his lifetime he learns to deal with chaos by creating his works. The next turn of chaos brought the Covid-19 virus. Everyone is trying to make predictions about what will happen next, but eventually we are all just sitting and watching the collapsing of the world once familiar. In your opinion, will the method of making art, in your description, remain relevant, and how will art change in the ‘world after the virus’?
(22.04.2020) AB: Maybe art gets better the more it's impacted by reality, the less it isolates or floats above. The handful of artists I'm in constant contact with have felt more compelled by this moment than ever. More compelled to think and feel and burst with expressions from under the weighted blanket of this moment. Not just because of the intensity of the virus and how it has forced us all to turn so inward, but because we finally have a bit of proof that our need to make and to see life through the lens of art lives beyond the reach of our functioning in capitalism. I am in my basement making little drawings about the frustration of being in my basement. I don’t give a fuck if they ever see the light of day, but I’d like them to. There is something profoundly hopeful about this process, the spoon full of sugar that goes down with the bitter pill. I don’t know what the future holds but let’s do it.
Thank you both again for this wonderful experience.