Nestor Engelke, 37, born into an artistic family in St.Petersburg, the self-anointed cultural capital of Russia. He received classical art/architectural education and set up the art group NORTH 7.
I love this guy. He smells of wilderness and the curiosity of stone-age hunters. If the Russian North still had unassimilated indigenous people, their art should be like that. Wood, axes, occasional raids to Moscow – ransacking cities, taking slaves and ransom and then using Rembrandt’s Danae as a door-flap for their log houses until a brilliant local talent is born that suddenly recognises its aesthetic value.
When I saw his work for the first time, it was this huge Gothic window.
A misty silhouette of a mystery forest man emerges on the other side of it, and the church-like window turns the encounter into a mystic experience because everything that’s Gothic is loaded with mysticism even if you are not religious. This experience is further enhanced by a contradictory visual conflict – you expect the silhouette to be dark; instead, it is emanating light like Christ in a Caravaggio or ET in a Spielberg.
It is wood to which an axe was applied repeatedly, and for quite a long time at that. It is a product of something rude being hacked by something even ruder. But the result is ephemeral and light.
I know that a comparison to God creating the lovable Eve out of a bone (not to mention Adam and dust) would be really stretching it. Still, the transformation of something so rough into the sublime is a bit of a miracle, isn’t it?
Then I saw his hewn map of Russia with sawdust on the floor beneath it. Were it not that huge, I’d buy it on the spot.
Even if you don’t
axe ask me why I wanted it, I’ll tell you anyway. Russia is famous for its furs, honey, wood, oil, gas, and people that are treated much the same way as natural resources: “spend it, spend it, spend it”, but make sure the population stays renewable.
There’s a Russian proverb, “When trees are felled, sawdust is flying” (it does have a Shakespearean ring to it). The meaning of this phrase is not as poetic as it sounds – it means that when the all-powerful state is straining its muscles to achieve something great, who cares how many people are ground to dust in the process. The Russian State is neither inherently cruel nor merciless – it is the inevitable consequence of putting the end above the means for as long as Russian history is recorded, and no Dostoyevsky with his tear of a child blah-blah-blah can help it.
This is how you come to appreciate the sawdust on the floor – a mass grave of fallen Russians who have built, defended and kept maintenance of this vast country.
Coming back to Danae – instead of Jupiter as golden shower impregnating the princess, a bat is flying away there… Is it a reference to Coronavirus? I have no idea, but if it is, it’s cute. If gods of the classical past intended to screw people, they’d turn into beautiful bulls, swans, or golden showers. Today, it’s bats, pigs, and baby-kissers with a tiny flag pinned to their lapel and massive security detail.
PS On some Saturdays, I just need a break from art history, but the next chapter on Europa is coming.