It’s always nice to deal with a professional; even an informal chat is enjoyable, since serious topics emerge easily, with universal truths revealed. Mikhail Borozna — well-known in certain culture circles — is the Scientific Pro-rector of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts. He is highly respected as a fine arts specialist, with acknowledged authority. He is also an artist himself, creating graphic pieces with elements of photo installation. Art is his life; he is a professional expert and has achieved much. Who better to talk to us about the nature of contemporary art?
Mikhail Borozna: — Candidate of Fine Arts Sciences, member of the Union of Artists, member of the Belarusian Union of Designers, member of the Photoart Association, art projects supervisor, curator of the Belarusian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011 and participant of various international art exhibitions (including the 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art in 2003 — one of the largest modern art forums in Eastern Europe).
What are the responsibilities of a curator?
The Venice Biennale is an exhibition of modern art and is sometimes called topical. To a large extent, it embraces conceptual art and is an experiment rather than a celebration of achievements. This is how the biennale describes itself. We don’t place works in golden frames, and have no traditional easel paintings or graphic pieces. Rather, we have works which synthesise ideas, creating modern philosophical experiments by musicians and film directors, as well as artists. We display a huge panorama of all visual means of modern art.
Belarusians took part in the 52nd Biennale in Venice, which had no integral programme or theme. Works were, largely, a demonstration of easel artists’ achievements. Today, we want to show art in action — including performance, improvised and spontaneous performance, video-installations, photo art and cinema. I’m still evaluating the concept but the task is clear: to show the achievements of Belarusians and our striving towards experimentation in conceptual art.
Is there much to show?
Of course. It’s good that Belarusian art is currently experiencing a crisis.
How would you evaluate contemporary Belarusian fine arts?
Luckily, the crisis in art is provoking development. Belarusian art isn’t resting on its laurels. It’s ever moving forward and young artists aren’t hampered by the pressure of past achievements; they’re free to experiment. Moreover, international exchange is active — as it never was in the 1980s. Artists have begun travelling, so their works have become mobile. They have exhibitions abroad. Our art has never endured real confrontation between generations or trends. The more I study this issue, the more I realise the specifics of this region. In 1919, in Vitebsk, if people weren’t tolerant, Kazimir Malevich and his contemporaries wouldn’t have been able to achieve their results in such a short time.
Today, many young artists of the middle generation have received international recognition, especially regarding their graphic, poster and photo art. I would never say that Belarusian art is provincial; it embodies artists’ desires and passions. Belarusian artists are striving to demonstrate their works and win recognition, although it’s common knowledge that their incomes are modest.
You, as an expert, know the history of the development of Belarusian painting. How are modern conditions in comparison?
Comparison is very difficult, although I’d say there are some similarities. For instance, Belarusian artist Joseph Aleshkevich — who lived in the 19th century — was educated in France and became a professor at the St. Petersburg Arts Academy. Of course, he was related to his native land but assessing this influence is not an easy task. Frequently, we base our view of pictures on how they are presented in a museum, rather than on how they influenced their original audience. It’s difficult to gauge the influence of the past. Even today, there are works by Belarusian masters which are currently found only abroad; however, they’ll eventually receive a national context, due to researchers.
It’s difficult to compare because the styles and functions of art change. Art was becoming more ‘secular’ and free while pursuing various goals. However, we can compare the power of talent because people change little in this area. I believe that, after obtaining its independence, Belarus has inspired many people creatively. There have been no losses in this respect.
The interest in our history is becoming more acute. We feel proud of the fact that Frantishek Smuglevich was from Belarus, and that the Lazar Bogsha Cross was made here. Not every country can boast of such talents as Chagall and Malevich — who lived and worked here. Belarusians have always existed within a global context.
Most collectors tend to direct their passion to artists from the past. They purposefully search out their earliest works. Why are contemporary fine arts often seen as second rate?
I wouldn’t agree. Collectors are simply being led by what they are told. It’s much easier to be led by what we are told about an artist’s creative life or biography than to decide for ourselves. I’d agree that the creative life of an artist is usually most interesting in its first phase — being more energetic. There are exceptions of course. For instance, Vitaly Tsvirko only came into his own in later years. In your early years of creation, you tend to be more sincere and less absorbed by technique. Of course, technique is to be revered, and collectors often choose their subject for this reason However, the technique of performance is losing its public popularity. There are masters of drawing and graphic art whom we can name, such as contemporary Belarusian graphic artist Yuri Yakovenko — one of the world’s leaders regarding miniature graphic art: in technology and technique of performance. Pavel Tatarnikov demonstrates supreme mastery in watercolour painting on paper. There’re names, although they are relatively unknown. Victor Alshevsky, Vladimir Zenkevich and Vladimir Tovstik also possess wonderful execution skills.
Around 20 years ago, many artists wanted to move towards a more formal painting school, saying they were striving to free themselves from creative dogmas. Did this hamper the traditionally solid, realistic school? Was real life perception lost behind these conventions?
I wouldn’t be afraid of artistic manifestations; competition stimulates development. People have always had historical grounds for similar statements. We can again recall the Vitebsk school and the consequences of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’ (open-air unofficial art exhibition on a vacant lot). The best representatives of the realistic school didn’t turn to abstract art. However, those who had to go, went. Perhaps, we should have exhibited them more often. Sometimes, technique develops at the expense of moral motivation. Art has always been part of the social order. Perhaps, this has harmed the school.
Shestaya Liniya (Sixth Line) Gallery in Minsk’s Yakub Kolas Street was home to the artistic underground of the 1970s and 1980s, where non-academic painters shared their vision: Igor Koshkurevich, Lyudmila Rusova, Alexey Zhdanov, Victor Petrov-Khrutsky, Todor Kopsha and many others. Their works show the unofficial side of Belarusian art from those years. Works were on show there for decades.
Their abstract forms of modern fine art were characteristic of the world trend. However, Western artists were able to discover and experiment with this trend much earlier than our artists. Did our Belarusian painters learn from their example, or were they just in need of fresh creative air?
This was naturally. Although many spoke of the ‘Iron Curtain’ information leaked to us from exhibitions in Moscow and everything began with the first International Student Festival in Moscow in 1957, where Picasso’s works went on show. Students from Belarus who were studying in Moscow saw them. Later, publications like Livshits books on art; they aimed to give a critical opinion on Western art but the illustrations of modernism in European art allowed them to become real textbooks. In the 1970s, alongside abstract art, Belarusian art was largely influenced by surrealism — which had concluded its popularity in Europe. Anything seen as ‘secret’ spread quickly. Belarusian artists like Georgy Skripnichenko and Nikolay Seleshchuk experimented within this genre and, today, the Belarusian art school is unthinkable without their names.
Regarding the realistic school, I personally think much harm was done. There was no free thinking criticism; there was only professional assessment. There was no interrelation between the artist and the critic to allow us to say that surrealism was wonderful but out-of-date. We needed to urge artists to think about themselves and their works. Perhaps, Belarus lost a significant interval to digest this unknown period of art — which gave birth to Kazimir Malevich, Picasso and Dali. Unfortunately, we gave a belated summary of European art. Our artists wasted their lives in copying. Outstanding people with good techniques stopped searching for personal expression. From this point of view, I believe much harm was done I refer various forms of spontaneous performances. In the 1980s, Ezov Boys was the most quoted artist for our artists yet, in German galleries, his works were already under glass. We had to assimilate the history of early 20th century European culture at an accelerated pace, at the expense of our own souls.
Which trends in national fine art are more obvious from the last decade?
One such trend is the traveller’s diary. While many Western Europeans are not greatly interested in pyramids, our artists are rapturous. I see it as a positive trend. We are not limited and can perceive the world with open eyes. To many, the leaning Tower of Pisa is just a tourist site. Our artists see it with fresh feelings. This theme of travel is obvious and quite expressive.
You tell us that Belarusian artists are in the process of searching. If we look deeper, what is characteristic of the past decade?
We should note their respectful attitude to technique of performance. No matter what they tackle — video-installation, performance, painting or graphics — Belarusian artists try to execute their work with the utmost mastery; it’s visible. Moreover, there is less literary foundation in art. In the mid 1980s, our graphic artists managed to reach huge success in poetry, literature and folklore illustration. This was largely based on literature. Belarusian artists have been significantly influenced not by the Berlin Wall falling down but by Chernobyl. After April 1986, official art disappeared by itself, becoming senseless and useless. Every family was affected by the aftermath of Chernobyl, which changed their world-view. Artists became more concentrated, with their works based not on literature or ideology but on their internal world. Today, even in art critics’ press speeches, there is no confrontation.
To what extent does the Academy of Arts — our main arts educational institution — focus on preserving the Belarusian art school?
It is our main concern. Looking at what is going on in neighbouring art schools, in the Baltics for instance, we are using all possible means to preserve the uniqueness of our national art school and to teach students not only universal skills and knowledge about art but also to show them our traditions. It is very easy to forget them. Therefore, the Academy focuses on this. There is still much experimentation, of course. Our students demonstrate wide knowledge in the field of arts history, being familiar with the latest achievements and different forms. We try to emphasise our desire to prepare experts for the future. We don’t want our students to take an aggressive attitude. Rather they should feel proud of the legacy they are inheriting. There are areas where we lead, graphic art for example; our Graphic Department is one of the best in Europe. We want to see our traditions continue, including those relating to monumental art.
What does the future hold for today’s graduates of the Academy of Arts? How would you assess their ability to realise their creative ambitions?
It’s not easy for them, although our graduates are not numerous. This year, just 23 graduate, including those studying on contracts. Many continue their education abroad — in Switzerland, Germany and the UK. They tend to succeed in finding jobs in Belarus; some teach or go to work for publishers. However, I’d like to see more of them working in monumental art, mosaic, fresco and sculpture. I’m the Chairman of the Republican Council on Monumental and Decorative Art and am confident that the young generation is striving to realise its potential, which is very high. I’d like to see their works not only on the facades of Minsk buildings but in other towns. I want to see more friendship between artists, architects and designers.
What teaching approaches are developing at the Academy of Arts? Do you prepare experts with definite professions or do you focus on creative individuals?
We need to combine these statements to gain a correct answer. We are dealing with individuals who have their own ideas. The secret is simple: if someone is extra-ordinary, just leave them to fulfil their own destiny. Don’t interfere.
Let’s talk about your creative sphere of graphic art. What’s happening in this field today?
It has acquired some new features, being brighter and more colourful. It has been accumulating achievements in conceptual art, strongly related to texts and the philosophical thoughts of authors. Graphics are experiencing dynamic change.
The roots of Belarusian graphic art can be found in ancient manuscripts. The famous first printer in Europe, Frantsisk Skorina, laid the foundations. We have great traditions on which to build the national graphic school. How is it unique?
Why has graphic art developed so impetuously? I believe this is largely related to our way of thinking. Unlike painting, it would be easy for graphics to lose their spontaneity. Belarusian graphic history dates back to Skorina, or even earlier.
How great is the impact of modern technology on graphics? How does it retain its unique identity?
The impact is definitely there. However, it’s difficult to gauge; obviously, we have the influence of computer technologies. We teach the mastery of conveying delicate spiritual emotions. Computers simplify these things — not always a positive move. Graphical art is a ‘concentrated’ art.
What is the main creative impetus in your own graphical art?
It’s hard to say. The love being able to think and create; it’s a constant desire. Conceptualism strongly influences me and I treat my works with emotional character. I want to share my ideas and, to some extent, am omnivorous. My interests are diverse. Just because I choose to draw a black square one day, it wouldn’t mean I’d keep drawing only black squares. I may be inspired by some abstract image or texture but I desire it to coincide with my emotional state. I don’t really try to please anybody.
Your goal is to cultivate the aesthetic taste of others, isn’t it?
Perhaps, yes. My creative works are never aggressive. There is nothing shocking in them. I’ve always treated the world, nature and people with respect and love. I like to understand rather than destroy.
What’s your philosophy as an artist?
I may not have an answer to this question. Philosophy is a manifestation of wisdom — and wisdom comes with age. Philosophy is a very complex way of displaying knowledge. My role is to create but I wouldn’t dare to call myself a philosopher. I don’t know much about this profession but I don’t aim to be a dilettante. This is my philosophy.
Do you trust your intuition in art?
Yes. Intuition is experience compressed in time. Experience allows me to trust my intuition. Not in everything, but in many cases. So far, my intuition has never prompted me to do something bad, so I trust it.
Are you biased as the author of your works?
Very. I’m a classic Scorpio. I never admire my works. I don’t display my own works in my studio or at home because I’d be always criticising them. I’m very strict with myself.
What assessment do you usually give your works?
They are part of my life. I can’t give them up, not my creativity nor my works. They are part of my body.
What is the future of graphic development? On one hand there are traditions; on the other, computer technologies are advancing. What will happen?
I believe that traditions will win over computers. Our school allows Belarusian graphical art to occupy a leading position in the world of graphics. If hand created graphics surpass computer generated images in popularity, the future of this sphere of art will be safe.
What new plans do you have personally?
So many; I want to participate in exhibitions, to publish my own book and to create a catalogue series. My immediate plans are related to the Belarusian pavilion in Venice. Curators can’t take part; it’s my job to find others to participate. It’s a task full of responsibility. My main goal is to show that Belarusians understand more than contemporary art. We can draw from it within the context of our reflections, since we are preoccupied with the same issues as the rest of world, of course.
How would you characterise the future of Belarusian fine arts?
It’s bright. I’m not an idealist, yet I see it as being worthy. The potential is significant. Our achievements show our ability to express ourselves and to allow others to understand us — in Belarus and abroad. We are entering a stage of active dialogue. The new generation has no language barrier. Art has developed its own universal language. Therefore, I see our future as being bright and confident. Naturally, it’s not without difficulties but I believe young people are striving to fulfil their potential. Art is not a smooth career path but faith can help you to create something.
By Viktor Mihailov
Famous person in the art world
[b]It’s always nice to deal with a professional; even an informal chat is enjoyable, since serious topics emerge easily, with universal truths revealed. Mikhail Borozna — well-known in certain culture circles — is the Scientific Pro-rector of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts. He is highly respected as a fine arts specialist, with acknowledged authority. He is also an artist himself, creating graphic pieces with elements of photo installation. Art is his life; he is a professional expert and has achieved much. Who better to talk to us about the nature of contemporary art?[/b]Mikhail Borozna: — Candidate of Fine Arts Sciences, member of the Union of Artists, member of the Belarusian Union of Designers, member of the Photoart Association, art projects supervisor, curator of the Belarusian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011 and participant of various international art exhibitions (including the 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art in 2003 — one of the largest modern art forums in Eastern Europe).