Tension and art in a world of absurdity with artist Sergei Prokofiev

Public life in Russia is changing very rapidly. Many artist and curators are fleeing the country to find safety. Others are trying to survive under harsh conditions. Moscow based artist Sergei Prokofiev feels the urge to respond to the current reality with new works and a plan to exhibit soon. While many cultural workers feel the pressure to turn silent, Prokofiev is still able to speak openly. A talk about tension and art in a world of absurdity.

Frits Dijcks: ‘Are you leaving?’, is an opening question among many Russian artists nowadays. Do you?

Sergei Prokofiev: Good question. You know, I think my plan is just to have this opportunity. Not to leave, like as soon as possible. But to have this choice. In the beginning of March. I tried to get to Sweden and use the train transit through Finland. But we didn’t succeed, because suddenly the covid rules had changed. So I understood that all of these things are happening at the same time. And I don’t think I don’t have the moral right to complain about it. Because I don’t know. I think I can’t think consider myself, a person in an unsafe situation. I am not in a direct danger right now.

Maybe not, but there is activism in your work, which can be considered conflicting to the existing power in Russia.

Aah yes of course, but you know, when you do something important in Russia, you really never feel safety. This is a permanent situation. It has just became more dangerous and more stressed, but it is nothing new, actually.

How did the invasion in Ukraine influence this tension? Did it change the idea of safety or the idea that you maybe can’t do anymore what you want to do?

Yes, there are lots of lots of cases that can be described like that. Yesterday, some friends of us published a statement that they are going to silence themselves in art. They decided not to produce art performances or any cultural product in this war situation. But this is their position. It is a decision I totally disagree with, because I think you should use the opportunity to speak out and to do something. But it might be different if you see your practice as a career. I don’t think about art as a career right now. I think about what I can do as an artist. How I can sort of fix the situation.

Tension and art in a world of absurdity with artist Sergei Prokofiev
At the Fringes, Pavilion №64 Optics, VDNKh, Moscow, Russia, 2018

You are now responding with drawings?

I am drawing a series of burned Russian soldiers in Ukraine and I try to organize some anti war underground exhibition. But I use a 3D pen. So actually they are sculptures. But I do draw them, in black, so you can also call them drawings. In photographs they look pretty tricky. I used this approach of fixing reality already 7 years ago during the war in the Donbas region, when I drew the burned Donetsk Airport Control Tower. It is important for me to pass all of these situations through me. To react from the Russian side to what is happening in Ukraine, because I didn’t feel that many Russian artists could respond in the form of an art project.

And how did people then respond to the Donbas series?

People who saw it were very impressed. A few of them were Ukrainians. When we talked to each other during this project, we shared some tears. But I had no opportunity to show it to a bigger audience because none of the big institutions in Russia were brave enough to show it, during these years. So it was only shown in the artist run space Elektrozavod Gallery, which I was involved in. A part was also shown a few years later, and that’s it.

And now with your new works, do you also have opportunity to show them?

Yes, the plan is to show it in an abandoned bomb shelter in the city centre of Moscow, only two kilometers from the Kremlin? It’s a new underground space. But I don’t know how long it will last, because at the first at exhibition opening, there were already people from the police and people from FSB. But I like this tension.

Did you have any bad contacts with governments or police within your art practice before?

No, no.

Hell Named After Sergei Prokofiev, Elektrozavod gallery, Moscow, 2017
Donetsk Airport Control Tower Nova

How do artists meet nowadays? Is it more 1-on-1, or do you also still come together as a group?

We come together in our studios, and on a few openings in different galleries in Moscow. So the cultural life is still going on. But most of us are very depressed. And a lot of people flew to Armenia, Georgia or other countries. And it’s sad. The situation is bad, but it is mobilizing me. This is my reaction to this situation of stress, I think. Depressed, but active; I try to do as much as I can.

"I'm just balancing on the edge"

Are you an exception to the group or are more artists responding within their work?

We are a small community or contemporary artists. But there are lots of small groups in this field. So we are very atomized. I believe that others might also be planning things, but I just don’t know about it. It is happening in secrecy. But one of my friends, decided to open an exhibition space in his studio in the center of Moscow. And I know about another artist who makes aquarelles out of the current media flow, so there is a kind of competition between us. 3D-pen versus aquarelle. It is a way to support each other, and sometimes we happen to draw the same things.

What sources do you use for your drawings?

I mostly use YouTube and some photographs, but I don’t have the time for a deep research process. But I am watching lots of videos which are made from the Ukrainian perspective. This also helps me personally, because the Russian propaganda is pretty hard for the psyche. We have some kind of core image of the world and I feel more for the Ukrainian position as being attacked. It’s very important to know about different points of view on this situation, even if they are both war propaganda. It is pretty crazy. I don’t know, I’m just balancing on the edge.

Do you also meet artists who are supporting Putin, or maybe you’re surprised or disappointed about their position?

I don’t know anybody that supports Putin. But in our community there are a few people who talk about the idea that his actions can be considered as reasonable. So they are sort of taking a neutral position. The current situation is very black and white. During the beginning of this war, I also tried to be somewhere in the middle and take different points of views into account, and to be neutral like an artist. But now, at this moment, I think it’s the wrong position.

It must also depend on what information you get.

Yeah, it’s very much about the source of information.

But you’re not disappointed in friends or anything like that?

No, no, they are just scared. Really scared. It’s more about the surviving mechanisms of the psyche, I think.

Tension and art in a world of absurdity with artist Sergei Prokofiev
xpedition 17 / part three, Elektrozavod gallery, Moscow, 2017

Is it difficult now to get information about what other artists are doing?

I think, yes. Because the main platform of sharing actions and events is Facebook. And now, Facebook in Russia, is considered an extremist organization. Lots of people got away from it, although you can still use it by VPN. It shouldn’t be a big deal, actually. But people are depressed. They just can’t do anything but ‘doom scrolling’, and get all of this shit. It is a devastating process.

Is there anything we can do to support artists in Russia?

It’s a complicated question. But I can tell you about my experience. In the beginning of February, I participated in a pitch for the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in Denmark. And I won the solo prize with two videos. And then the war began and the Ministry of Culture of Denmark decided to ban Russian culture, so my work was also banned. But there was a big supportive movement in Copenhagen. And as a result, they decided to show my videos again. And as a standalone Russian artist, I received a lot of support from the Scandinavian region. So I think that we, as an international art community, can support each other in channels which we already have. And not to be silent. To speak and talk to each other about this war situation, that must be stopped. If Putin will not be stopped in Ukraine, his next move will be towards the Baltic region or other ex Soviet republics.

And it’s also very important to not support this collective guilt. Because each person and position within the Russian culture is unique. Not all of us are equal. I totally support your practice to stay in touch. It is very important. There is no total support for this terrible war in Ukraine. The current situation with punishments and censorship in Russia is mainly directed to the protesters on the street and the direct calls to help Ukrainians. So it’s not about expressing your opinion. It is not as awful as you might imagine, but it is constantly shifting. And actually nobody knows what our government is going to do the next day.

Tension and art in a world of absurdity with artist Sergei Prokofiev
Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition, Copenhagen, 2022 - Photo courtesy of the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition by Søren Rønholt

What do you think will happen to your life from here?

Our horizon of planning now is about a few days or one week. The war is going on for one month now and I have no idea where all of these days have been. Everything is so chaotic.

But I have I have some hope. My hope is the stop for all war actions in Ukrainian in the middle of April. I have no basis for this hope, other than my thoughts. And after that, a slow de-escalation following this situation. And of course, there will be an economical collapse in Russia during the coming months. Maybe it can transform in a political crisis in August or September. And as a result of this crisis, I believe there will be no person like Vladimir Putin in the Russian political arena. So, that’s that’s my optimistic point of view. But there will be very pessimistic consequences for Russian culture.

Due to the recent developments, I finally realized that I’m living in a fascist Nazi state. And it all started in 1999, when Putin became the president. I think it was in 2008, when he started to talk about the fall of Soviet Union as a political catastrophe. So now I can see that it was the beginning of direct aggressive actions, to take historical revenge, to rebuild the Soviet Union, to rebuild this empire. But it can’t be done within a historical perspective, because the era of the empires ended at the World War I, and the Soviet regime just tried to freeze this natural process.

So during all of your artist lifetime, you have lived with this concept of Putin’s Empire.

Yes. But it became part of my practice, after the protest movement in 2011. For me it was about the growing tension. About the power and energy that was on the air at that period. I think I just always worked with this phenomena of social tension.