This is Petro Wodkins’ message to the people who broke the window and wrote “Take this shit out” at the opening of All Colors of White exhibition. In a secret place somewhere in Europe, on the 17th of May, the Russian artist exposed pictures of blue, yellow, red painted penises of different sizes and shapes. Petro just became public in 2013, a newborn in contemporary art, reaching for the core of art away from posh galleries or market value, challenging people’s minds, provoking emotional (and sometimes physical) reactions. His place is not in a picture on a wall or at an art auction, but in the square of Brussels, putting his self-portrait golden pissing statue on a pedestal in front of Manneken Pis. Or placing himself in front of Modern Art museum in Vienna, telling you it’s about to be closed down. Or near Ashes to Ashes burning abandoned houses in former Soviet countries. He’s everywhere, and through painting, music, photography or performances, he expresses his own approach about love and art. Even if sometimes it’s met with hate.
I feel I’m ready to show something to people. I’m already grown up as an artist but I’m very young as a public person. I studied art and I’ve got these three letters in my degree document, but does it really matter? I think that studying art is useless. Education tends to form you, to make you alike; it gives you all these academic parameters which I think are very bad for artists’ development. The main thing is the need to have your own approach, your own opinion and that’s something that art studies can kill. The only reason why I didn’t want to appear until now is that I really wanted to kill everything the studies offered me.
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin is my artistic godfather. Bathing of a Red Horse is one of his most significant artworks and I did my own version of this painting. I bought this horse from a slaughter house, I brought him to the scene and we made people and the horse bathe in the middle of a white desert and they became red. I call that artwork Meat because this horse could have become a piece of hamburger, but suddenly became a piece of art and got a new, happy life. Now the horse lives with a wonderful lady, who named her Petra, and she is used for horse-riding lessons for children. The family sold her to the slaughter house, when someone died and needed some money for the funeral. They sold her and she was supposed to be killed. That’s how the horse got into my artwork.
I think Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin is one of the biggest artists that ever lived. For some reason he’s mostly known only in Russia. I just love him. He didn’t really care about mainstream, he was very passionate about his mission and even when it was Soviet time already he didn’t jump into Socialist art. He continued on his own way even if it didn’t give him real opportunities. If he would’ve become someone who sang anthems of the Soviet State, he would have probably become the most successful and rich Russian artist because he had that talent. But he preferred to make his own way and probably that’s the thing that I also want to reach. I want to approach art in my own way. Not to care too much about what’s selling better, which is what art is about at the moment, or what the galleries are looking for. It’s not the way it should work. It drags down everything beautiful about art.
Right now art is nothing because in the last 30 years not much really happened. It’s not the battlefield for people’s minds anymore. Whatever happens now it’s just about how much Cezanne or Andy Warhol cost. Nothing new happens. There is no minds’ explosion anymore. I think it’s a crucial problem for the art scene at the moment because it’s more about marketing and selling points than about art itself. With all my artworks I want to raise questions and give people some emotion. And as soon as it provokes some questions and emotions I’m happy and I don’t care even if they want to kill me at that time.
My art is not something that people are used to, that is conceived as art. I just had All Colors of White exhibition a couple of days ago and during the night when my artwork was on the wall in that gallery, the window was broken. And I was told there were some middle-aged guys who threw stones at the window and broke it and they wrote me some messages like “Put this shit out!” So I think it’s kind of interesting that art can provoke such reactions. For me it’s a success that just a picture on the wall can give these emotions to people that make them do some crime and vandalise galleries. When they crushed the window in my art exhibition I didn’t tell them “You fucking bastards;” I’m telling them “Thanks for your reaction and thanks for being here with me.” But probably these people haven’t been that affected by art ever before.
For me it was a clinical experience when I painted penises. It’s not something that I do on a regular basis. And to find just regular men standing in front of you with their dicks and to paint on them was a better way to know yourself. I chose the dick as a canvas. It’s a little canvas, sometimes it’s smaller, sometimes it’s bigger. It’s a lively canvas. When you paint it can become bigger, smaller, so it was very interesting.
I don’t think the world is very open about nudity right now. With all this political correctness and religiousness it’s again becoming offensive. It was a time, 30, 40 years ago when it was more common to have and watch nudity. But at the moment I’m not even sure that you are able to publish my artworks in the newspaper. When they showed it on a Russian TV channel, everything was covered. It’s 2013 and people are still afraid of a dick. Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it a regular human part as an eyebrow, or a leg, or an elbow? Why do people care so much about some certain parts? If you don’t want to see, just pass by. Don’t throw stones in the windows. Or maybe that’s what you should do, as long as you feel something. I think right now we’re going in the opposite direction of engaging people. Now we are trying to put much more morals into life. And these stupid moral things I think are killing your real feeling of life. Why should someone tell you what you are or are not allowed to do? The only law is that you don’t physically hurt anyone. And as soon as you don’t hurt anyone you’re allowed to do whatever you want.
I don’t really care about the frames. I care when there are no frames. If I think my art looks good, like at Manneken Pis where I placed my own statue, I don’t really care if some people like it or not. That’s basically the core of art – some people should like it some people should not, the worst thing is that they don’t care. The urge to be loved and, in the case of art, being sold, is compromising the whole purpose of art. I was surprised that Belgians are so conservative since they want to give the opposite impression. They have this small statue, quite unlike other countries with big monuments, just this fact makes you want to like them, it’s an interesting and relaxed standpoint.
So I thought that Belgians are really easy-going but the reaction of regular people surprised me a lot. They are more conservative than most Russians. That’s why I’m working with all these things around art that also include the media because people’s hate is also my art. Every reaction is needed to make it complete. If they say “Go to your fucking Russia,” it’s OK, it’s their reaction. I need people to tell me something or at least to tell themselves something. I’m not original in this sense; everyone wants reactions and feedback nowadays. But within the borders of what’s commonly accepted, like uploading your Saltimbocca dinner on Facebook. If I didn’t want any reactions I would probably go to Tibet and would sit there alone for the next 25 years and meditate. I wouldn’t go to Siberian forests, because some journalists would definitely find me there in five years and make a kind of savage sensation. Media are hunting for something unusual, and there is nothing unusual about meditating in Tibet. And if I went there emptiness would be my art. Forever.
Golden Petro is still in prison and I still want him back but I don’t know how to get him. I didn’t commit any crime, maybe only a minor one, like wrongly parking my stuff. Maybe I’m supposed to pay a fine for wrong parking, but not have the artwork confiscated. I still think my statue is more beautiful than the pissing boy. I am beautiful. I’m critical about my art, but as to myself… I’m almost perfect. It was a shiny golden piece and I think it’s still a much more interesting artistic reconstruction. Why do they love their Manneken Pis so much, why is it the main attraction for everyone? Why it’s the main sightsee point when you come to Belgium? That was my question. Is it that beautiful? Is it something that gives you opportunity to think about; is it something meditational, what’s that about? And maybe most important, is it art and if so, do people even care how it looks and will they even notice if I change it? The main reaction came from regular Belgians because I haven’t heard anything negative from the officials, apart for the fact that the police arrested some of my crew. If you read those wonderful comments in French around articles in Belgian media or on my post on YouTube it’s just hate hate hate hate hate hate hate. I say “I love you so!” and they “Go to your fucking Russia!” OK, I’m in my fucking Russia, have fun with your pissing boy!
I don’t think it’s possible to promote art only through media if you have a clear message. Media plays by its own rules and it makes its own game. If you look at a specific artwork, like the Petro Pis, in China it’s covered as a funny thing, in US it’s covered as good artwork like a nice street art piece, in Russia it’s promoted as a criminal offence, in Belgium it’s promoted as news, so media say whatever they want and need to say. But I’m pretty much fine with that and as soon as it’s something that people can have their own opinion about instead of every stupid news story they hear. That’s why I put it on YouTube so you can watch it yourself and have your own opinion. You don’t need to read about it in the news. I wanted to make something that gives people positive emotion, some love and some kind of opinion points. Even if it’s Ashes to Ashes, the artwork about burning down abandoned houses. When something is dying, something new is born. Whenever you’re sad, I think it’s better to crush something that is old and ugly and make something new around it like an artwork than to go and crash people’s faces that most people do.
I’m not an activist. I’m not going to fight against the government for the moment because I have my own issues and my own messages and my own approach in art itself. So I’m not political at all. What to do – to replace that statue with Putin? If I really cared about politics in Russia, I wouldn’t do something about a pissing boy in Belgium. I’m far away from politics and I’m more interested in questions about how people look upon the world and sometimes upon art. When you mess up politics and art it’s strange. My art is about love. Everything is about love. Art should be about love. It shouldn’t be about anything else I think. It shouldn’t be around money, politics. But why shouldn’t it? It can be about everything. In my opinion everything is about love so it’s just natural that my art is also about love or emotions in general. It’s just my own approach. My approach is love.