Udo Kittelmann and Vadim Zakharov
Conversation in Berlin, 2013
Udo Kittelmann: Where did the idea for the Danaë project originate?
Vadim Zakharov: You may remember that I took my old works as the starting point in searching for the project’s main idea. That is natural. It is hard to disassociate from what you have done before. I looked at my base projects, such as The History of Russian Art, Monument to Theodor W. Adorno, The Murder of Sandcake Madeleine, First Correction to Marcel Proust, and others, including Lessons in the Boudoir, where I brought an attractive female model and a philosopher-critic together on the divan. I think that the image of Danaë arose deep down, at the intersection of all these works. Leafing through kilometers of information, I suddenly stopped when my eyes lighted on Rembrandt’s Danaë. There could be no doubt. This was the sought-for image. But further progress into the “Danaë complex” was not easy: it involved an infinity of interpretations and personal journeys to the heart of culture and of my own consciousness and subconscious. Danaë is the key to my own “self-developing system in culture,” which has been under construction for years, and at the same time it is a lock that ALL keys fit. This unusual figure, familiar to everyone, describes my methods of working in art in a remarkable way, and it might be called the most important symbol of our time.
Kittelmann: I don’t fully understand what that means: the figure of Danaë describes your methods of working as
Zakharov: I work with large projects, which, of course, include separate works, but as elements of a single conception. Nearly all of the projects can be read at different levels. Nearly all of them are extended in time and can be supplemented. That is true of the Archive project or Literature on One Page or my method of numerous co-authorships. I always find it dull and uninteresting to do individual works. All of my projects, without exception, bear the stamp of
the author’s analysis of what is happening in culture overall, and not just on the halfpenny bit called “contemporary art.” For me there is no such concept as “contemporary art,” and “art of today” is an even more repulsive formula. I suppose that art of today is easier to sell, but it seems to me that the pursuit of topicality has reached a dead end. The Danaë project is no exception. It has “basic multilayeredness.” It is constructed, I hope, not just in the real space of the Russian Pavilion, but also in the space of thought, as in 3D. It is important to me that the viewer sees the “architectural-intellectual” structure, which he can climb along. This journey of the viewer inside one project is extremely important to me. In this and in my other compositions there are a lot of elements that are familiar to the viewer, but they are always given in different combinations—hence the feeling of something new, and this is the direct road to uncertainty about one’s own precepts, which is the same as a desire to reject them or, on the contrary, to affirm them. Danaë is a path for walking that leads from the familiar to a cliff edge into infinity. This boundary is different for everyone. Nearly all of my works have this boundary—when understanding ends and suddenly, unexpectedly for yourself, you are flying into the depths of the unknown. I think that for many people my work Execution Chair of Love will be the start of such a fall. This work assumes all the weight of the Danaë project, but with a minus sign. It has a toilet hole, a rose, and unexplained violence is implied. I, as the author who made this work about eight years ago, am still in a space of being incapable of offering a unified reading of it. For instance, when I was already in Venice, I discovered that on St.Mark’s Day the Venetians give rose petals to the women they love and to their mothers. I think that the viewer will bump into it, as into a dead end. And there are only two ways out of a dead end—to break out or to go back.
Kittelmann: You say that the Danaë myth is so rich in metaphors that it has allowed many interpretations, from antiquity to the present day. But in your answer you give the Rembrandt Danaë from the Hermitage as your prime example.
So you have chosen one interpretation, which, in your opinion, acquires a powerful symbolic meaning in our time.
Zakharov: An image that has gone through centuries inevitably carries a variety of interpretations. Human history couldn’t erase or destroy this strange image, which arose more than two millennia ago. This suggests that it bears
the load of time, opening a new chapter of its own book on each occasion, gradually. The book still hasn’t been read to the end. I propose opening a new chapter, where Danaë is an important symbol of the contemporary world. This ancient Greek image, like no other, dares today to become an image of the present and speaks primarily about the devaluation of basic values. Putting it simply, the immensely complex image of the descent of a god to a person is transformed today into . . . Do you know what it is transformed into? Into a mere satellite dish called “Danaë” (as the name of some firm). Instead of a miracle of divine penetration, we have an information war, where any new information is worth its weight in gold and sometimes more. The satellite dish or information flows—penetrating us—are linked directly with the myth of Danaë. Money has come to play the main role, as never before. Zeus the Thunderer is turned into a stock exchange. In search of the key image for the project, I looked through all possible representations of Danaë in the history of art. There are many of them, from vase drawings, many representations in painting, the beautiful sculpture by Rodin, right up to the installation by James Turrell. For me, Rembrandt’s Danaë from the Hermitage is a more interesting example than the others (although, for example, the coin takes up a fragment of the Danaë picture by Correggio). In my view, the Danaë in the Hermitage is one of the best representations of this myth. It is interesting that it is the only representation where gold coins are not to be seen. What is shown is the moment of the god’s appearance, not yet revealed, but already present. We see the incredible tension of it all: of the girl, the servant, the drapes in the background, each thing having become itself. This moment of incredible suggestion, not the erotic, is what caused a madman to attack it in 1985, throwing acid on the picture and striking it twice with a knife. It was an attempt to destroy the firm image of the encounter between a person and a god. The picture was restored over many long years by the best restoration experts. The image is restored, but the moment of vandalism is fixed—the fury of a man who assaults a god. The photograph of the deconstruction of the image, which viewers can see on the floor in one of the Venice
Biennale halls, was taken an hour after the attack. The flows of acid and water have made a graphic network of lines, which almost destroyed the image but couldn’t destroy the most important thing: the meeting of a god and a person.
The tension of the picture was only increased.
Kittelmann: Why is there such an active “male-female” division in this project? So far as I know there hasn’t been a gender problematic in your work previously.
Zakharov: Yes, this interests me. I think that such a definite, even excessively sharp division was dictated by the construction of the Danaë myth. All that I have done is to follow the structure of the myth—the girl was forcibly separated, isolated from male presence. This I have also integrated: the project has a hall, which men cannot enter. However, unlike the myth, I have no prohibitions for women—they are free to go anywhere or to reject the room, which is set aside for them only. Incidentally, this cave room is a clear symbol of the female womb. I haven’t shied away from such a clear gesture, which isn’t characteristic of me. Usually everything is removed to a certain authorial distance, from
which the object can be observed without merging with it. But here everything is different—I have waded into the gender problematic, without even thinking about it. I have fallen into the crater of the myth, and the only thing I can do
is to go with the flow, further strengthening the theme that has already bored us nowadays. I must say—I have made a lot of discoveries for myself, and they have confirmed my position that our world would be far better if it were managed
by women, not men, or if women were dominant. But it is never too late. Indeed, I propose correcting that mistake. Women are in the “Platonic cave” (one more clear stamp)—they can’t look up, at the place from where golden
coins are flying at high speed. But, nevertheless, I hope that even in this situation, which is a difficult one for them (the coins symbolize sperm), they will be able to describe our world differently and better.
Kittelmann: The Danaë project clearly involves a return to basics, to roots. How is the gesture of “instituting a currency of the artist” connected with this? Doesn’t it worry you that the appearance of this “alternative currency” nowadays
will be viewed as a quixotic gesture on the part of the artist?
Zakharov: I don’t mind being quixotic. I already tilted with windmills in 1996, so I can pursue that line today. The Danaë project doesn’t involve any attempts to reconstruct our world—it is not utopia, although there is much that points
toward it, such as my last answer, for example. All that I am doing is a “deep cultural cross section.” The result is what it is. Whatever problems get touched upon, we discuss them. It is simply that a certain boldness of statement is
needed in order to cut the section, regardless of whether or not the statement is banal, whether it is direct or ironic. There are some simple but “awkward” words engraved on the reverse side of the “One Danaë” coin, such as “love,” “truth,” “unity,” or “freedom.” And the responsibility of the artist toward himself for those words is also expressed. Is that not naiÅNvety? Possibly. But I am certain that the artist today has to guarantee his presence on the artistic stage, bearing personal responsibility, independently of anyone else—that is the currency of the artist.
Kittelmann: What is the link between money in your earlier work Stimulation (1980), which is shown in the space of the Russian Pavilion, and money in the Danaë project?
Zakharov: In 1980 I did a number of works where money played the role of a stimulant for the appearance of wrinkles on the face, where I asked a person to wrinkle his nose or forehead for an hour or stretch his ears to make them
larger in return for a certain payment. In another instance, money was a symbol of the absurdity of the monetary system, when I paid one ruble a time for a light blow on the nose with the index finger, inflicted on themselves by people specially invited for the action. In the work that was presented in the project, money completely lost its significance, for it was reduced to formal, round, shiny elements, which were laid out on the street in the form of money roads of varying length. You have to remember the context and my age. The Soviet system. Small wages. No official contemporary art. I was twenty-one. I had no money. I was studying at the institute and working as a caretaker, earning seventy-two rubles a month. Money was a survival category and an abstraction, simultaneously. It was bad form to talk about money in intellectual circles. So the use of money in works by a contemporary artist at that time was provocative,
and some people expressed their annoyance to me.
If we try and span a bridge from 1980 to 2013, little has changed in those thirty-three years. Except that the socialist system (the ostensibly equal division of money) has given way to another one, the capitalist system (where,
supposedly, everyone receives money depending on the amount of time they spend working). On the whole, nothing has changed since the first coins, which appeared in Lydia in the seventh century before Christ. And money will go on uniting the whole palette of features—from a mere payment equivalent for work done to a maniacal, furious desire to have more and more of it, with all the consequences that ensue. I am not making any value judgments. Money can’t be primitivized. It is important to have a personal attitude toward it. That is what is stressed. In the Danaë project, money itself “stimulates” the process of thought about what money is today, about the share of personal responsibility.
Kittelmann: Danaë is perceived as a universal project, not tied to any national soil. From your authorial viewpoint, does it reflect a specifically Russian problematic? And to what extent is such a problematic important to you as an artist?
Zakharov: I don’t think that a national pavilion has to present something specifically national or something that is specific to that country alone. I don’t show Russian dolls, ballet, or vodka. What is important to me is the universal view. A universal approach to culture has always been characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia. I have known the Danaë myth since I was at school, and I suppose I relate to it as something that belongs to me, somebody Russian, and to the history of culture. The project touches on many questions (including unpleasant questions) about Russia and about all other countries.
Kittelmann: The inscriptions on the walls calling for renunciation of sins and false values . . . The author is positioning himself as a judge and the voice of conscience. You will agree that such a moralizing tone is not characteristic of
the contemporary artist. Do these exhortations carry some of the irony which is usually characteristic of you?
Zakharov: I can’t explain everything. That is wrong. I construct a certain stage, on which a certain presentation happens, which goes on for half a year. This presentation is not moralistic. Everything is mixed up in it. If the viewer sees a moral aspect, that is one thing; if he sees a competent professional artifice, that is another thing. As I said, in this work I tried to move away from any value judgments, and that was very difficult in view of the problematic that it raised. Direct statements, bordering on the banal, and irony are in a kind of temporal equilibrium here. They flow into each other every second, so it is hard for me to say what is where.
Kittelmann: What is your own attitude toward the Danaë project? How was it influenced by the significance of the place? Can it be viewed as a kind of conclusion in your work?
Zakharov: The Venice Biennale is a very complex format for an artist—the more so because of the specifics of exhibiting in the national pavilion. There are a lot of parameters to take into account. The year I spent working on the
project was particularly difficult. I had to make the effort to squeeze all of the experience that I have gained in thirty years into one project. Those years of experience are almost invisible to the viewer, but they are very present,
woven into the overall pattern of the Danaë. It was highly important for me to create a conceptual ornament, which could be seen at once, without having to struggle through the personal creative biography of the artist. In this
“decorative matrix” the author is no more than a coin falling from the pyramid glass ceiling.
Kittelmann: Is your project connected to the main theme of the Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace”?
Zakharov: The theme of the Biennale was announced much later, but you and I chose the Danaë project in May or even April 2012 when we were talking in your front room, and intensive work on its realization and clarification began
then. “The Encyclopedic Palace” is very close to me because it is related to the theme of an archive, to which I devote much time, as you know. But I think that Danaë is even closer to the announced theme of the Biennale. Danaë is
an encyclopedic palace in a literal sense. You can leaf through it, like pages, for a very long time—I would even say endlessly. In your “Manual” you plunged head first into the depths of this project and, as we know, there was no bottom
to be found—you could go further and further, but you said STOP! I am very interested to see how other artists will reveal the main theme of the International Art Exhibition.
Kittelmann: You remarked in one of your texts that you don’t like fair rides, particularly in today’s art. But Danaë will clearly be perceived by viewers as a sort of fair ride. How can you explain this contradiction?
Zakharov: There is no contradiction. The fair rides I was talking about present only themselves, their fair ride. There is nothing more to be said about them. They whiz you round, scare you, tempt you, or knock you out with just one device. It is very rare to find two. The “Danaë encyclopedic fair ride” is a trap, particularly for those who are sure of themselves. You can fall into it and lose your way.