On Alchemy, Love, and Scale

Alexei Parshchikov: To me, there is no doubt that your work is connected to poetry. Your series “Translation of Time XII” seems especially interesting in this sense. There is a phrase in Robert Musil’s “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927) that reads “At times one might say that the young Rilke was imitating Rilke.” Paul Valery expresses a similar thought: “The artist needs to be able to imitate himself.” The history of your work has taken the shape of a temporal loop: a series of paintings that you sent off to Finland in the late 1980s came back from this northern country (or to be even more mythological, from the land of shadows) 15 years later, to Cologne. In reaction, you began to invent ways of aging certain materials used in your painting, so that now, fragments of your new paintings step out to meet the older, “original” fragments of the returned pieces, whose themes your newer works vary, at least in part. What is this? A new version of "Dorian Grey"? Or "Faust"?

Evgeni Dybsky: Let me set matters straight and say that I did not rework these older paintings when I received them. All of the pieces that we are going to talk about here are new, painted on new canvases. In 1997, I really did make a series of pieces called “Translation of Time VII” by using older canvases from another series: I didn’t like some of these older pieces, so I decided to repaint them, making use of what was already there. But in this case, it’s a completely different story, which we’ll talk about later…But as far as Faust is concerned…

A.P: …the story of Dorian Grey is told in synchronic terms: every step the hero takes immediately reflects back upon his “chronometric” alter-ego: the portrait ages. This is an immediate reaction, an almost electronic form of remote control. In contrast, “Faust” is a diachronic narrative moving toward its own biographical past through history, in reverse, all the way to Helen of Troy, in the hope that the ancients will supply its protagonist with the secret of life so that he might “reload” and recreate his lost soul.

E.D.: This story could be extended back even further, back to before Helen of Troy actually became Helen of Troy. In certain parts of my pieces, the "skin" that they have grown in their voyage through time will peel off intentionally; this won’t be tomorrow, but it will happen at some point, revealing virgin canvas, just like when a scab falls from a wound to reveal new epithelial tissue. Something very similar will happen to the painting, showing the process from death to life through layers of archeology: each layer of paint is basically a layer of history.

A.P.: The story of Faust does not only entail the search for control over time. Another myth that Goethe used is no less important, namely the myth of alchemy. In fact, I see a variation of precisely this myth in the devices you use to make this series: the substance of your material develops over time. Mephistopheles, Faust, Gretchen, Homunculus, Helen of Troy – these heroes are essentially the components of an alchemical transmutation.

E.D.: Galatea also comes to mind, not as an oceanic nymph from “Faust”, but as the object of Pygmalion’s love. The master created an ideal woman. To me, she is an illustration or reflection of life itself, while Homunculus figures as the creation of something that is new in principal.

A.P: But Homunculus is not a mimetic but a hermetic allegory. The alchemists invented Luminescence. Flickering behind glass, Homunculus draws Faust into the Classical World, where he hopes to find a truly human form. They meet Proteus, the god of transmutation who “translates” the language of one material into the language of another. Returning to contemporary art, Joseph Beuys or Matthew Barney, for an example, have also drawn upon the symbolism of alchemy. But you are operating with occult materials with lead back to the painting’s origins, aging parts of the canvas and “evening out” time, that is, connecting the painting to earlier periods in your work. Your alchemic authorship has given rise to an aggregate of spontaneous actions. Certain sections of the canvas are aged in an arbitrary fashion, which is what makes this technique reminiscent of the automatic script of the surrealists or even George Yeats’ reception of automatic script through spirit Controls.

E.D.: I feel closer to Homunculus than to Galatea: I’m not trying to create naturalistic images or illustrations. My objects speak for themselves. Some theoreticians seem to think that all the artist has to do is to think up an idea and that the assistants will do the rest: the process itself (its originality, its authorship) is supposedly not that important. Some artists can accept this idea. But for me, one does not exist without the other. It’s a little like love: you can make love through words, but at some point, you find yourself needing intimacy. The idea and its realization are inseparable to me. For now, I find the process itself fascinating, its state of mind. And in this state of mind, this boundary between the idea and its realization simply does not exist. The state of mind – the process of painting – is the experience of the idea. If we continue the idea of the creation of Homunculus and luminescence, then I can say that as long as I don’t see that a piece is beginning to glow, to luminesce, then the idea has not yet been developed in full and work on it has not yet been completed. This luminescence (it sounds even better in German – “Ausstrahlung”, radiance and broadcast all at once) is what sets art apart from illustration and design.

A.P: A matte, luminiscent orb that contains all colors, not a Black Square, not a White Square, but a white sphere.

E.D.: This sphere you’re talking about is interesting. In my childhood, and even now, I have one dream, or to be more accurate, a half-dream. I close my eyes and see an orb spinning in front of me, endless, of an indefinite color and size. The image of a sphere – spinning in an indefinite direction, growing continually and constant at the same time – provokes a feeling that is very difficult to describe. It brings nothing concrete in and of itself: I don’t paint paintings on this theme, for an example…

A.P.: Where do all these super-surfaces originate? Zero-surfaces, neutral surfaces, but at the same time, energetic membranes…Where did this kind of perfect surface come from, or better yet, how did you come to it?

E.D.: These surfaces had already appeared in my work of the 1980s. Only here, their color isn’t white: they only become white in my more recent and most recent work, where white color and ideal surface go hand in hand. This is why they have emerged much more clearly now, maybe coming close to the “ideal” in the process…

A.P.: Made of pasty, congealed materials, figures are saturated with the cold swirling of layers that perforate one another when huge masses are rapidly immersed into the deep sea: massive volumes displace seabed springs and currents, revealing dark interstices, from which oozing silt will rise. Surfaces that speak of the seabed – Deleuzian surfaces – bring depth to the surface, turning it inside out. Micro- and macro-planes are jumbled: aerial photography within a vacuole. Throughout, the conundrum of mastery lies in conveying the epic calm that descends from some unknown source, notwithstanding all of the cataclysms and hysterical fits of color-energy. A constant exchange between depth and height. Could one say that you are bringing together the painting and the landscape?

E.D.: To me, the painting is a landscape in which I undertake my explorations. It has been a long time since I was interested in simply making beautiful paintings. I try to reach the boundaries of painting’s possibilities, not by refusing its potential beauty, sensibility, or spatiality, but – quite on the contrary – by bringing these qualities to the point of a paradox. As far as my “ideal” surfaces are concerned – which appeared thanks to Italy – they have gained the structure of a mirror, polished to a mirror-like sheen, so that reflections play on them. Not only the painting glows in space, but space glows in the painting.

A.P.: Connective tissue and grains are caught in the half-transparent substance of your material as in lava: metonyms of a world that once was larger. Details that were indiscernible have now drawn closer, becoming a variety of elements: air, stone, sperm, hair. Yet another of memory’s perspectives?

E.D.: If my pieces from the 1980s contained little more than outgrowths of reliefs, then these contain depressions and cavities; the carcass that I work on has become far more pronounced. In other word, the third dimension introduces another vector more actively. This vector is not parallel, but also perpendicular. The frame of these new pieces is now composed by all of the space that surrounds them, both in front of them and behind them. Putting all other factors aside, the inclusion of hair influences the painting’s “resolution” and serves as a focal point for the eye.

A.P.: The beholder comes closer and sees this hair. Does it work like a printed raster?

E.D.: In order to see this hair, you have to adjust your optical apparatus. When you focus your eyes on the hair, its surroundings fall into an equally illuminated space of limbo, which you suddenly also occupy. But when you move away, you see everything in total. At this point, the hair is no more than a detail. When you look at it closely, it presents an entire universe of its own. It supplies a scale when its individual hairs are counted and underlines the particulate nature of the moment. When I painted my Crimean landscapes, I saw the flowers on the trees as pictorial points, points of reference in space, a minimal scale; now, one could say that the hair plays a similar role, supplying the rest of the painting’s field with a scalar raster…The paintings have craters that space creeps into. The craters of earlier series contain hair; space clings and curls to it. In other words, the different interpenetrations of space and painting, painting and space depend upon the various forms of relief in these pieces.

The body is part of the landscape, not only in a metaphorical sense, but in terms of chemistry. The fact that we all come from dust and will turn to dust one day has a lot to do with my work: the parts that are supposed to fall off will actually fall off; then, the other parts that aren’t supposed to be destroyed immediately will also be destroyed. In the end, there will be nothing left but hair, bone-like surfaces and synthetic emulsions. In the physical sense, they will take for about as long to decay as our skeletons when they finally become part of the landscape. And the hair will take just as long to decay as our own hair. You said that I only started painting landscapes again after 15 years of not having looked at the landscapes that came back to me from Finland, from the “land of shadows”, but it only seems that way. In fact, these pieces are “tattooed” landscapes of the body, whose idea already appears in my earlier pink and white series, which also contain hair. In this idea, the body is very physical: it is covered with wounds and signs. This is something I have been concerned with for the last five years. The body is more important than the landscape. But now, I find myself attracted to color again, even if it never really disappeared from my work. For an example, my white was never really white: it actually consisted of twenty some-odd layers, all of which shine through: each of their tones is different and never repeats. For a while, I was working with light, almost white surfaces; it seemed to me that any use of bright color would separate the piece from the space that surrounds it, stopping it from dissolving. But I would like the piece to dissolve, only allowing certain elements of space to emerge, and then all the rest.

A.P.: You made your first sketches for the pieces that were taken to Finland in Krotenky, a village near Poltava (Ukraine). At the time, I was finishing my book “I Lived on the Battlefield at Poltava”, which attempted to depict one battle as two battles with different outcomes. In a way, this is the same idea of time’s “cross-currents”.

E.D.: At first, I wasn’t planning to work in Krotenky at all; I didn’t even take along anything but a little notebook…It was 1987.

A.P.: You’ve said that these drawings have started to work now in some way.

E.D.: Not the drawings, but the paintings have started to work. But it’s interesting that you and I have been talking about series number XII, which was stimulated by the series “Monotone Theme”, which, in turn, found its impulse in drawings that I made sitting at the fence of your little house in Krotenky. Only four of twenty large paintings came back from Finland. The rest were sold. I remember that when I was unloading them, in 2003, it was extremely hot and stifling. I was working on a series of big pieces, three meters in length, for the museum in Bonn, where I was planning a “white” exhibition. But then, I hanged up these pieces from “the land of shadows”, and they seemed incredibly current, even if I don’t like this word and notion in application to art…I continued to work on my “white” pieces, but this older work took up a part of the space in my head…

A year later, I began to work with them, on paper at first: it soon became clear that it made little sense to simply repeat their themes. Then, I developed a new technique which allows the parts of the painting reminiscent of “older” themes to fall apart more quickly than other parts of the work. Time, the same time I refer to in my “Translation of Time”, really began to yield to translation in the literal sense. To put it differently, an invented, absurd combination of words really began to work. Time becomes a diary, which carries the title “Translation of Time”. Now, finally, the name is externalizing itself, whereas it was once little more than a metaphor I had found intuitively.

A.P.: If one takes a broader view, any kind of mimesis is a copy: when we imitate nature, we are also copying it. You work in series, and although they contain the image of reproduction, they also contain “missing links”, ellipses. Do you think that a series can be seen in reverse, as a movement from the copy to the original? That the gravity of the original image is stronger than its multiplication?

E.D.: The series is composed of certain connections that arise in the process of painting, which is something we talked about before as a process of love…Right now, I’m involved in a process like this, so I’m interested in this and that. And this is what I explore. As long as I can explore my emotions on this theme from all side, the series continues. I paint six pieces at a time, so that they all correspond to one another. Some structure found in the first piece will find its answer in a structure found in the third piece; these pieces then fall into place, giving rise to the idea of the next four pieces, which also don’t repeat one another, but grow gradually. The process itself supplies the ideas.

A.P.: Which impression did you have when you were “confronted” with pieces that you had only seen as reproductions?

E.D.: Most copies, or better, most reproductions are superior to their originals, that is, not every original holds up in the scuffle with the exacting gaze that scours the original for those elements that you can’t already see on reproductions – breathing, grain, smoothness etc. This gaze is already “calibrated to a different raster” than in reproductions, and if it fails to find what is looking for, the encounter with the original is inevitably a disappointment. But there aren’t so many people with an exacting gaze, nor are there very many people who see and feel on the whole. In post-modern consciousness, the copy has been celebrated as the loss of exclusivity, which is something that everyone had grown sick of. The denigration of authorship and an entire slew of other things are pleasant because they destroy your own responsibility, rendering its criteria relative. You talk about Deleuzian surfaces, for an example, but I haven’t read Deleuze at all. I’m not calling for people to be illiterate, quite on the contrary…All I want to say is that we give away our responsibility with every reference we make, along with our authorship. I have always found it interesting: what exactly is an artist? Can one only work within his discipline without recoding his work into the other languages of art? What came first, in the final analysis, the chicken or the egg? Basically all philosophers are also artists: on the one hand, they attempt to become prophets; on the other hand, they simply write literature. When Fukuyama’s book “The End of History” appeared twenty years ago, I was working on a series called “The Alarming Space”. And as we can see today, space is becoming more and more alarming, but the end of history is no-where in sight, and if you judge things by what’s happening today with civilization and the struggle between cultures that we are witnessing today, history is only just getting started, sorry. This is why everyone has forgotten all about Fukuyama by now. But back then, it seemed like he was god, even if he was just another author. I think that I’m an author too. I’m not delegating my responsibility for my original to anyone. What’s more, they would be pretty difficult to copy anyway…

July-August 2005