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For several years, residents and visitors of Riga have been admiring the impressive ten-meter Monkey Sam, which was originally installed in the Kronvalda Park, but in recent years has organically complemented the urban environment of Jaunā Teika. The sculpture was created in 2016 for the Riga Sculpture Quadrennial “Conservatism and Liberalism”, and the author of its prototype is a sculptor from St. Petersburg Denis Prasolov. We invited Denis to talk to us to find out how the artist manages to combine the two opposites of the contemporary art world – modern themes and high technical level of mastery, inherent in the Russian classical sculpture traditions of the 18th century.
It is no secret that the world is experiencing a global crisis, which affects the personal and professional life of every person. What is your recipe for getting through this difficult and challenging time more successfully?
Solitude is the main prerequisite for my work. Even under normal circumstances, I often used to isolate myself for a long time and wear a mask when working with bronze and stone (due to allergies), so you can say that my lifestyle and habits have not changed much.
You have graduated from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, the Berlin-Weissensee Art Academy and the University of Eastern Finland. How much did your academic education influence your artistic style?
In the 1990s, when I got to the Weissensee, I was impressed by the approach to the process of learning. In Soviet times, classical art schools trained mainly specialists in monumental propaganda, who worked to order, and these traditions were still very strong in those years. You could be an excellent student without even creating any works of art! At the Weissensee Academy, the creative component was more important than handicraft and applied use. Students were thinking about projects and exhibitions, not about monuments in squares. For me, this was a big discovery and a turning point. My academic background has given me the tools I use in my work, but not the style.
Do you think it is possible to master the profession of an artist in school?
The profession of an artist is not a set of certain skills or abilities. It is about choosing your path. Sometimes school is not a must, but sometimes it is not enough.
What are the qualities of a contemporary artist?
Ambition and critical thinking.
In the 20s of the twentieth century, the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs introduced the concept of “collective memory”. Although there has been a lot of discussion about the interpretation of this concept, I think that your work could be described as the study of the phenomenon of collective memory…
At the moment, I live in a society whose collective consciousness is impossible and even dangerous to study, because people of different ages, beliefs and education often have very different historical memories. It would be very interesting to live to see the study of the collective memory of people (in the present).
In your works, there are often references to the relatively recent period of the USSR and its distinctive culture. I admit that these topics are of interest to those who live in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, and for many it is even a part of their childhood or youth. But how do people from other cultural spaces, such as America or Europe, react to your art?
I hate exploiting the USSR theme. I remember well what life was like in the USSR, and I do not find anything romantic or nostalgic in it, although this is part of my life, too.
My project “First Crew” is dedicated to animals that have been in space on Russian, American and French spaceships. They died or survived so that people could go to space. I consider animals to be the same inhabitants of the planet as we are, and they were forced to become the first space explorers. This is a monument to them.
Perhaps, people from the former USSR have the idea (as they once did thanks to collective memory) that space belongs to the Russians, but this is not the case. For people all over the world, space has long ceased to associate with Russia, so there were no problems with perception in other countries (besides Latvia, the project has also been exhibited in Germany and the United States).
In the installation “NON TESTATUM”, I used a Soviet-era household item – a medical urinal and the play on words and forms as a metaphor for lies and dirty propaganda. The meaning of my work is well understood by those whose vocabulary includes the expression “newspaper hoax” or “canard” (French for “duck”), which means the deliberate dissemination of fake news in mass media. Ducks are in Uli Sigg’s collection (Switzerland).
How and have you observed generational and cultural differences in the course of your research?
Due to globalization, the boundaries between cultures are becoming more blurred. There have always been and will always be differences between generations, but nowadays this gap is growing at an unimaginable rate.
As for research as such: In 2020, when the pandemic began, I realized that the real research activity, after all, takes place in scientific laboratories, and not in the artist’s studio. For example, when I conceived the “First Crew” project, it was quite difficult for me to collect the necessary materials on this topic, separate lies from truth, etc. Then I turned to the Darwin Museum, where I received excellent research material created by scientists.
Another example: when I decided to use special concrete for sculptures, my experiments brought me to the Concrete Institute. I was given the opportunity to get acquainted with the materials of scientific research and then apply them in practice.
Research is the production of new knowledge. As an artist, I can’t produce new knowledge, I can only thrive on the results of other people’s research.
Signet Bank Art Collection includes 10 sculptures from your “First Crew” series, which is dedicated to organisms used by the Soviet Union for rocket testing. Please tell us more about this series…
As I said, this is a series about animals and all the inhabitants of our planet. Not only the Soviet Union, but also other countries used animals in their experiments. The Americans used monkeys; the French used cats. The dogs Belka and Strelka were turned into heroes of Soviet propaganda, they are most widely known in public culture. For my part, I wanted to tell the stories of other heroes. The series isn’t over yet. At the moment, I have sixteen heroes, the most recent being the zinnia flower, which bloomed in orbit in 2016.
Which of these stories is your favourite? Why?
Sam’s story is closest to me. The Americans used monkeys in their space experiments because they are physiologically very similar to humans. These experiments were often very cruel and traumatic. Monkeys in space were subjected to great stress due to loneliness and fear, monkeys have a more developed intellect compared to other animals. In 1969, the US Congress decided to stop experiments in space involving monkeys.
As part of the Quadriennale, “Monkey Sam” was transformed into a large-format sculpture and hundreds of children and adults took pictures of it. Is this your first environmental art object of this kind?
Two of my works are exhibited in the public space of St. Petersburg – “Unicorn” (2000) is on display in the courtyard of the Faculty of Philology of St. Petersburg State University, and the “Manager” is installed on the Aptekarskaya embankment.
Both of these bronze objects have already acquired a fine tradition. Before exams, students shove pieces of paper into the Unicorn as a lucky charm, while the Manager’s ring is rubbed by people who want to have a successful marriage.
How do you feel about art in the public space?
It’s complicated. It all depends on the context and location. There are a number of wonderful art objects in the public space throughout the world. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about Russia. I am very worried when monuments are erected on the historical sites of St. Petersburg. I believe there should be a moratorium on long-term monumental things, but I have no complaints about temporary objects.
I was very happy when Sam moved from Kronvalda Park to Jaunā Teika, where it fits much better than in the historical park.
How do your works come into being? Do you make sketches, samples, models, create sculpture blanks?
My project “PARTHENOGENESIS” (2015) is dedicated to the creation process. Parthenogenesis is one of the types of sexual reproduction, in which eggs develop in the adult organism without fertilization. I chose this process to metaphorically describe my creative work: inception of an idea – hatching – painful labour in solitude.
As for techniques and technologies, I am very traditional. Recently, a lot of new materials have come into sculpture, but the process itself – sketching, modelling, shaping, casting – has remained the same for many years.
I follow you on Instagram, where you regularly share photos of your working process. One of your recent posts was called “Artificial meat” («Искусственное мясо»). Human anatomy has also been your subject before, but now, looking at this picture, it seems that you are studying the subject in depth. Is it a right guess?
The technology of manufacturing artificial meat is still at the moulding stage. In recent years, the idea has come a long way – from something inedible to a product that is difficult to distinguish from real meat in taste and nutritional value. Visually, it looks like an unpleasant lump of nutritious substance. As an artist, I offer the in vitro meat design – an organism with no nervous system or brain. During this work, I studied the anatomy of an elephant, because it has very large bundles of muscle fibres and a clear structure.
What is art for you: work, hobby, or maybe passion?
Art is my way of life.
Deniss Prasolov is a sculptor and restorer based in St. Petersburg, a graduate of the Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy, the Weißensee Academy of Art Berlinand the University of Eastern Finland. With sculptor Pavel Ignatyev, Prasolov founded the Workshop #7 collective. Many of his monuments are installed in urban environments across Russia. Within the small statuary format, he gravitates towards representing the animal kingdom, illustrating diverse mythological, historical and literary stories and commenting on biological processes that represent a scientific view of natural phenomena. Prasolov manages to intertwine fictional stylings with a naturalistic form of expression, having learned a lot from sculpture tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. His works are exhibited in St. Petersburg – at the State Russian Museum, at Erarta, and at the State Museum of City Sculpture. The Signet Bank Art Collection holds 10 sculptures from Deniss Prasolov’s First Crew series, which is devoted to organisms used by the Soviet Union for rocket testing. First Crew immortalises these anonymous, forgotten animals and plants for their indirect contribution to humanity’s spacefaring endeavours.