Making art in a monkey house

Issue Number: 
By Chris DOSS

Oleg Buryan is a well-known Russian artist living and working in Moscow. Born in Kiev, he moved to Moscow 20 years ago and now exhibits and sells his work here as well as abroad. His work is characterized by a great amount of versatility in both choice of media and general style, ranging from oil painting to doll construction to book illustration to computer art. His art has been exhibited all over the world, including in major exhibitions in Edinburgh, London, and Milan, as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In addition, he is the co-founder of an Oxford-based publishing company producing mainly children's books. He also collaborates with writer Rose Baring (of Barings Bank fame), the creator of an illustrated guidebook to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

How did you originally get involved in art?

My grandfather was an artist and my mother wanted me to be educated as an artist but not to become a professional. My grandfather had been killed by the Bolsheviks in 1928. I don't think it was for political reasons; I have his notebooks and they don't contain anything about politics, mostly just names of girls. Accordingly, my mother wanted me to stay clear of public life, which she considered to be too dangerous. I studied medicine for a while and left that – they wanted me to do military work related to the war in Afghanistan, which I opposed – and then came to Moscow and worked as a legal secretary for a while in Soviet courts. Then I began my work as an artist and was exhibited in quite a number of underground venues in the 1970s and '80s, probably secretly managed by the KGB, but my real time as an artist, as was the case with many of my friends, was in the 1990s. My last job with the State was working as a censor – I put stamps on rock music album covers. I live entirely off the sale of my art now. It took a long time, but I finally managed to make it to that point.

Did you ever get into trouble with the KGB?

Yes. I had a lot of friends who were actively opposed to the government. But I had a good sense of humor about it and never took it too seriously, so I was never in any serious trouble. It never affected my work. I don't really care about politics anymore. Art is much more important. Art and women.

When did you begin to exhibit publicly?

At the end of the 1980s my work was exhibited in many Soviet exhibitions and, since then, it's been exhibited all over the world, in Europe, North America, and Japan, in private collections everywhere.

What would you say is the place of art in your life and in life in general?

Well, I don't really know – I'm so deep inside it that I can't answer that question. People swimming near waterfalls don't think about waterfalls. To them it's just life, that's all. And that's the way artistic activity is for me. Art is important for everybody. If you're not interested in art, if you don't have "good taste," it means there's a problem somewhere in your life, perhaps something criminal, or problems with relationships, psychology, mentality, private life. My first teacher was a very old artist from the generation of the ‘20s, possibly one of the last people to have been trained in the classical Russian tradition. He told me, "Oleg, being an artist isn't about just producing art. It's a way of life, a style of life."

Do you think of your work as being particularly Russian? Do you think of yourself as being part of a broader tradition or in continuity with any particular artistic movement or movements?

I can't say that I do. I think of my work as being universal. I'm from Kiev, which is the origin of Russian culture, and in the '70s, was very cosmopolitan relative to most of the rest of the U.S.S.R. – I remember how provincial Moscow seemed when I first came here. Remember also that I grew up in a very internationally oriented generation that had access to a lot of what was going on in other countries. We listened to the Beatles and knew about Pop Art, for example. We got this sort of material a couple of years after it would come out in the West, but we still got it.

Art is universal. A genuine artist will assimilate everything of genuine value in whatever he or she comes across. I certainly do this, and so I don't consider myself to be a part of any particular school or movement. I collaborate with many different people of various professions and from many different parts of the world. Right now, for instance, I'm working on a mulitmedia project with a well-known Australian artist. I'm a universalist.

What is your opinion of the current Moscow art scene? Is there much of a difference between art produced in Moscow and in the provinces?

Moscow is a monkey house. It's oriented toward the international art scene and so there's a lot of "contemporary art," by which I mean works that are created in order to win the artist quick fame and money and lucrative exhibitions. It's amazingly cynical. One person in particular, who shall remain unnamed, spends thousands of dollars on basically worthless works of "art" – this at a time when people in the provinces aren't getting paid. Nobody will remember these people in another five years, let alone 50. In the provinces, people tend more to create for the sake of the work itself and not for such superficialities. In general, I'm more interested in the work of people operating outside the center of society, including what's called in the English-speaking world "outsider art" (art by children, the uneducated, drug addicts, the insane, people outside of mainstream society). You can see what I'm talking about if you look at, say, a simple icon that may not have been made by the most sophisticated person on earth but into which much passion has been poured. That's what will be remembered.

What is your own place in the Moscow art scene?

I live and work here, obviously, and exhibit in Moscow galleries. But that shouldn't be taken as indicating that I consider myself to be a part of the Moscow "art scene" or "art industry" per se. To be part of such things corrupts your work and compromises your person.