My work with Rembrandt’s drawings in metal has the following prehistory.
Not far from where I live in Moscow lies the Kuzminsky forest. In the Soviet era, the inhabitants of nearby fi ve-story apartment houses took hold of small plots in this forest to illegally grow vegetables. To protect their meagre harvests, they built incredibly durable fences made of metal beds, girders, wires, meshwork, and pipes. Today, all these fences have fallen into disrepair, making them all the more expressive.
I wanted to turn these fences into art, so in 1998, I brought a part of a real fence to the Small Manege Exhibition Hall during Art Moscow, but it didn’t look very good outside its natural habitat. I didn’t plan to show any photos of these fences, and after Olga Chernysheva exhibited her Street of Dreams in 2000, there was no point. Olga took photos of garden plots fenced in by the backrests of beds, and these pictures were so full of sadness and melancholia that the question of moving in this direction was moot. What’s more, it was really something else that attracted me to all that bent iron, namely its similarity to manuscripts, calligraphy, and drawings in ink. (Such interlacings can be found not only in fences, but also in electric wires, especially in places like Japan where they don’t get rid of the old wires when they lay the new ones. But when working with cables, we are always dealing with forms that lack
In my own drawings and paintings, motifs that resemble wire or tree branches are not uncommon.
I don’t know why, but all of this has fascinated me from childhood onward. One of my early experiments with metal was a sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza that I made when I was 13, in 1974. It is not without a certain inner resistance that I show this piece, since it reveals that I have not come very far with any of my ideas in the last 35 years. (Only at that time, I really liked Picasso’s drawings.
In 2007, still inspired by those fences, I made a series of 6 metal works for documenta 12. These pieces were made on themes from Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, as well as an autograph from one of Beethoven’s letters, and a letter drawing by Karl Marx (one that I had previously tried to interpret as a painting. This was a metal rendering of a manuscript page from The German Ideology. The page is divided into two parts. On the left, one clearly recognizes the handwriting of Engels; on the right, there is a large number of profiles. Marx never made any drawings in his manuscripts, so this is a strange exception.
This piece on Marx was the first of the series, and the one in which all the technologies were developed for use later on. But from then on, I focused more on calligraphy. Marx turned out to be an exception in my series; even if his drawings are quite schematic, they still depict people and not the kind of abstract curves that work so well in metal constructions. But I really wanted to return to that initial experence, and Rembrandt’s drawings provide the best of all possibilities with their ideal balance between a calligraphic line and realist precision. I have been buying books with Rembrandt’s drawings for many years now, and one of these purchases is also connected with Olga Chernysheva. We were in Sidney together and doing what we like to do most: exploring the local antiquarian bookshops. Olga was right next to me when she found an amazing Italian edition of Rembrandt’s drawings from the 1960s that I somehow missed. She headed straight for the cash register, and no matter how hard I tried to convince her to give me the book, offering her anything at all, she wouldn’t do it. Then again, she later agreed to let me to hold on to the book indefi nitely, and I have had it since.
Most of Rembrandt’s drawings have a rather small format; their size often doesn’t even exceed a page in this book. But in these metal versions, they have been magnifi ed a hundred times or more. This giant “blow-up” effect is one of my favorite devices. For the exhibition I believe, for example, I blew up a fragment from Mantegna’s Dead Christ to a size of 600 x 800 cm. The fragment that I was using was only originally no more than 27 x 36 cm. That amounts to a magnifi cation of over 400 times. But one of the miracles of old art is that it can survive any magnifi cation.
Another thing I think is important is that the fl at image of the drawing becomes three-dimensional. Looking at one of the famous rock gardens in Kyoto, I imagined a page from another Marx manuscript (from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844) laid out in space, and when I painted this manuscript page, I remembered the gardens of Daitoku-ji. I had a pretty interesting experience with that page too, by the way. It fi rst stuck in my mind when I saw it in the book Karl Marx. A Life in Action (Moscow, 1983, p. 68). There was something very unusual about it. Once I had fi nished painting it, I eventually decided to check for this image in the MEGA, the authorative criticalhistorical edition of Marx and Engels that is still being edited and completed today. I found it, only to discover that the Soviet edition contained a vertical mirror image of the same manuscript page. This is very rare if one considers how carefully such books were prepared in the Soviet Union. My attempts to paint the correct
version of this manuscript met with failure.
Returning to three dimensionality. I remember that while I was making the page from The German Ideology for documenta, I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong: why didn’t this piece satisfy me, even if it was quite precise in all respects. That continued until we started to increase the depth of the image, though still quite sheepishly. Now, Rembrandt’s drawings have been executed with a depth of 35 to 40 cm. This creates a parallax effect in viewing, that is, the image changes constantly as the viewer moves, while the original Rembrandt drawing can only be seen from one singular point of view. (All the credit for this accomplishment goes to Boris Prudnikov’s masterful work with metal.) At the same time when I was developing that idea, I was also working on a project for the 3rd Moscow Biennale, which bears that very name Παραλλάξ ( Parallax). In a room of 10.2 x 6.2 meters, five layers of protective wire netting are drawn overhead at a height ranging from 250 cm to 570 cm at intervals of 80 cm. Various construction materials left over from the installation are strewn on top of these equidistant layers. Whenever the viewer changes his position, they begin to produce an illusion of shifting, thus turning a static composition into a kind of video.
The last thing I would like to say is that metal can gain the effect of weightlessness if it is welded according to the same logic by which a pen moves in making a drawing. Among my works in metal, one can fi nd the most direct connection to weightlessness in the project Used. These works show the same rock gardens; the horizontal surface becomes vertical; iron rods suggest the rake-tracks in the gravel, while the stones have been replaced by appliances and objects that are no longer in use but that are hard to throw away. Defying gravity, these things seem to fl oat freely in space.
Translation: David Riff