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>> Cai Guo-Qiang's explosive art
>> Gregor Schneider's hermetic rooms
>> All Together Now: Rirkrit Tiravanija
>> Interview Vadim Zakharov

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"I’m a Culture Junkie"
A Conversation with Vadim Zakharov

Over the past 25 years, the Russian artist Vadim Zakharov has created a highly diversified work that is bound together by a kind of dark humor. This year, he’s the first Russian artist of his generation to be honored in a one-person show at Moscow’s Tretjakov Gallery. Zakharov is also part of the exhibition series Blind Date, which presents new acquisitions to the Deutsche Bank Collection. Jutta v. Zitzewitz met with the artist in Cologne and talked with him over Georgian cheesecake and Russian tea about Sumo wrestlers, stolen cassocks, and shot madeleines.

Vadim Zakharov in his studio, Photo Jutta v. Zitzewitz

Vadim Zakharov readily admits to being a romantic. Indeed, you could almost think you’re in Spitzweg’s Poor Poet’s room when you climb the creaking stairs leading up to his attic workspace in a turn-of-the-century building in Cologne: books piled up to the ceiling, two desks, a threadbare seating arrangement – an environment that suggests a writer’s den more than an artist’s studio.

Cult Control, Kafka, Detail einer 7teiligen Fotoarbeit n. d., Deutsche Bank Collection

His love for the written word has been accompanying him since the 80s, when Zakharov began his career in the circle of Moscow Conceptualists surrounding Ilya Kabakov and Vladimir Sorokin. In 1990, the artist, archivist, collector, curator, publisher, and book designer emigrated to Cologne. He’s worked with almost every conceivable form of expression ranging from painting, photography, and video to book art, performance, and installation. Last year, his installation History of Russian Art from the Russian Avant-Garde to the Moscow Conceptualists(2004) attracted considerable attention in the exhibition Russia! at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Vadim Zakharov has just been honored in a Deutsche Bank-sponsored retrospective at Moscow’s Tretjakov Gallery, titled 25 Years on One Page.

Vadim Zakharov and Dr. Ariane Grigoteit, Director Deutsche Bank Art,
at the opening of "25 Years On One Page" in the Tretjakow Galerie

There’s a method to Zakharov’s multiple roles and the great heterogeneousness of his work. Both a vanishing point and a means of self-protection, they become a strategy for assuming power that turns against the contemporary art establishment, whose interpretations increasingly subsume artists’ works. By gradually occupying every available niche in the production and dissemination of art, he strives for a new, direct relationship between the artist and viewer that ultimately aims to abolish the principle of authorship in its multiplicity of chosen roles.

Cult Control, Tolstoi, Detail einer 7teiligen Fotoarbeit n. d.,Deutsche Bank Collection

Jutta v. Zitzewitz: Over the years, you’ve created a highly idiosyncratic artistic universe that has assumed a number of different forms. You’ve worked as an artist, publisher, archivist, historian, and collector. How do all these functions interrelate?

Vadim Zakharov: I think any professional contemporary artist should try to combine several different directions. With me, that happened sort of naturally. I have been a book designer since the early 80s as well as a collector, and I’ve had this obsession with archives since the beginning. These different pursuits have run parallel to my own artistic production. Over the years, I’ve come to implement all these roles very consciously. That’s how I spread myself out, so to speak. It’s a way of keeping the dialogue with myself alive.

The Funny and Sad Adventures of the Foolish Pastor, Adventure No. 3, 1996, (c) Vadim Zakharov

Your art is also centered around your own persona. In the past, you have played the dwarf, the one-eyed author, the owner of the Madame Schlyuz ballet school, etc. The most famous role is the "Foolish Pastor Zond from Cologne," a character situated somewhere between tragedy and comedy, very much like Don Quixote. What was your initial idea when you created that character?

All the characters you’ve mentioned represent different positions that are important to me. The pastor was the latest role; I don’t think there will be any more masks for me after that. It started in 1992, when I founded the magazine Pastor, shortly after I had come to the West, but it took three more years for the pastor to materialize as a real character. The black cassock comes from the church of St. Peter in Cologne; it belonged to Pater Mennekes, who runs the Kunststation St. Peter. It was funny, because he didn’t know that I took it …

…You stole his cassock?!?

In a way, yes [laughs]. I went to St. Peter to ask him for a cassock, but he wasn’t there, so his assistant just gave one to me. I used it in a performance in Japan, for the Funny and Sad Adventures of the Foolish Pastor, the episode when the Pastor fights with a Sumo wrestler and loses. The fight was recorded on video. At the Venice Biennial in 2001, I presented stills from that video on scrolls (Theological Conversations). Pater Mennekes came along and asked me if I was the artist and whether I could explain the meaning of the piece. I asked him if he recognized the cassock and told him the whole story. He was very amused. Right now, we’re collaborating on an exhibition that will be shown at the Kunststation St. Peter.

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