Ukranian artist Yuri Leiderman (b.1963, Odessa) was an important figure in the Moscow conceptualism circle of the 1980s and 1990s. He was a founding member of the 'Medical Hermeneutics' group from 1987-1990, before moving to Germany in 2004. His performances and installations, which include drawings, objects, photographs and videos, make references to the world's history, literature, geology and geography and employ a subtly elaborated pseudo-scientific methodology, with a distinct absurdist take. Leiderman questions the space between a conceptual heritage - with its critical stance towards any accomplished system, including ideology - and absurdist games, often based on language, that defy rationality and the conventional logic involved in the interpretation of an artwork.

Curator and writer Elena Yaichnikova initiated this interview in light of the artist's recent involvement in the political situation in Ukraine, in order to reflect on the necessity of art in times of crisis. The beginning of the Ukranian revolution in 2014 marked a turning point for Leiderman, and inaugurated new political engagement with the country and, aesthetically, constituted a rupture with his former conceptualist colleagues. Recent expressionist painting constitutes a return to the artistic activity with which he began his career in Odessa.

Elena Yaichnikova interviews Yuri Leiderman

Elena Yaichnikova: There is a frequent reference to myths and epic poems (such as Homer's Iliad or the Mahabharata), and to folk wisdom and popular cultural tropes in your work; that is, to an epic past and, in fact, to a timelessness. What is the place of the present time in your practice? Does a concrete historical moment interest you?

Yuri Leiderman: A ‘concrete historical moment’ is a fiction, to my mind, which exists only in mass-media and in a discourse that serves mass-media's fakeness. I am not interested in it, but in an event that happens here and now. Its truthfulness is something that inscribes me together with others into an act of becoming and affect. Why is another stupidity of Trump considered a ‘concrete historical moment’ but a chestnut tree blossoming behind my window or a genius goal by Messi is not? Merab Mamardashvili wrote about the round cheeks of Proust's Albertine in In Search of Lost Time, about her dress blowing up by the wind – they exist only in the moment when we are reading about them, by our effort. In the same way, when I am reading about a smart, gracious and friendly smile of Odysseus in the Iliad, I am recalling in my memory all the smart, happy, brave and friendly moments that I came to know in my life, from books, knowledge of history, talks with friends, or the accidental smile of a person standing behind me in a queue at the shop yesterday. That is why an ‘epic’ smile of Odysseus for me is a ‘concrete historical moment’ to a far greater degree than many things called so in newspapers.

The Dances of Killed Trojans, 1999-2000

Installation view (Dance of Achilles): at the group exhibition L´Autre Moitié de l´Europe, Jeu de Paume, Paris, France, 2000

This performative work makes references to Homer’s Iliad, which contains a wide catalogue of physical deformities and methods of killing, represented in the main by the names of the Trojans (Asians) who were killed by the Achaeans (Europeans). The work includes several elements described by the artist as following: ‘The resulting table here was constructed on the basis of a scrupulous textual analysis of The Iliad: in the left vertical column are the names of all the Achaean chieftains, and in the horizontal rows are the names of all the Trojans they each killed with an explanation as to how the blow was administered: in the head, neck, shoulder, chest etc. Next diagrams were drawn up. Here we noted, on the particular contour of the body (meaning the body of the ‘unknown Trojan soldier’), the defeats of all Trojans killed by, let’s say, Achilles or Ajax, Odysseus, Diomedes etc. This seemed to be, at the very same time, a dance diagram where the direction of the blows – say of a spear going in to the chest and coming out through the back – were marked out as the positions of the left and right feet. And in the end, having enlarged these diagrams on the floor, I tried to dance every dance myself, each time to the very same ‘European’, bravura, heroic music (an excerpt from Schubert’s 5th Symphony).’ Several dances dedicted to the Achaeans heroes were performed. ‘However,’ as the artist remarks, ‘all these dances obviously looked almost the same: reckless European heroism, a widespread Asian wane and a small bespectacled man in a black denim jacket clumsily flailing about between them. - Yuri Leiderman

Elena Yaichnikova: ‘Geopoetics’ – a term that united many of your works from 2002 till 2013 – referred to national identities and treated them as abstract signs, empty in substance. Has this attitude changed today, when you are spending more time in Ukraine and have become involved in the political situation there?

Yuri Leiderman: I would not say that my ‘geopoetics’ treated national identities as abstract signs, empty in substance. I rather tried to catch an energy of real historical events: sufferings, prejudice, etc. The aim was to interpret this energy in ornamental signs, an abstract pattern, on the one hand, and to do it so that the energy, this wind of history lasts, on the other hand. Therefore, a viewer should have found him or herself in a strange and ungraspable gap between the one and the other. This is rather a therapy of subjectivity, a reminder that it is always given only as an absence, a longing, a lack. In my ‘geopoetical’ works I assigned to myself the role of a teacher, therapist, master of ceremonies, creator of all these ornaments swept by a wind of history. However, this position became inappropriate for me now because I have found myself inside a nation desperately searching for a new, impossible and unreachable identity, through worn-out myths, war with an imperial and far-more-powerful enemy (a real war in which people are dying every day). In other words, I found myself to be not a master of a crumbling and recovering ornament, but a constitutive part of it, in a situation in which ‘poetics’ turned out to be ‘politics’ again, or to say it simply, everyday life.

Elena Yaichnikova: What does your involvement in the real situation in Ukraine, which came to replace your ‘geopoetics’, mean to you?

Yuri Leiderman: I have already answered so many times on this question in my interviews that I would have to cite myself here...

From Between a scream and an ornament, Art1 Visual Daily, 28th October 2014

Pavel Gerassimenko: How does it feel to be an artist, who was born in Odessa (Ukraine), worked in Moscow and is currently living in Berlin?

Yuri Leiderman: The most important [thing] for me now is connected to an attainment of the country, of the homeland. After so many years when Ukraine was a kind of a ‘one's own Other’, something similar to a miracle happened – not only for me, but also for hundreds of thousands of others, who suddenly discovered their Ukraine in the same way as the country discovered them in its turn. A feeling of humiliation, disappointment, helplessness in November [2013], which suddenly gave way to the Maidan, then the war, and now this feeling of an enormous pride, exaltation, mixed with an anxiety and hate. Our flag, our hymn... All this is associated with romantic and conservative traditions of the 19th century and is not entirely shared even by my friends among Ukranian artists. However, for me it is also connected to my reflections about ‘geopoetics’ as they are presented in my texts and film project with Andrey Silvestrov, The Birmingham Ornament. I mean a ‘national identity’ understood as a dream, an obsession, as something similar to a poem that each one of us writes by his or her own life. […] It is a matter of the ethical dignity of a painting's stroke, of a gesture, and it doesn't depend on its mimetic or discursive conditions. In a marvellous way it is juxtoposed for me with a name applied to the current Ukranian revolution, which is ‘A Revolution of Dignity’. It is exactly here that Walter Benjamin's ‘tiger's leap’ lies – a leap from an amortised system of actual contemporary art into a sphere of the non-actual and essential.

From Art is always searching and longing for 'awkwardness' and a limp,, 25 February 2016

Nikita Kadan: But when and how does a responsibility before a place appear?

Yuri Leiderman: It is a very interesting question, as a notion of having ownership of place and a responsibility for it has been something of a taboo in contemporary art. Nobody has spoken much about it for the last 50 years. It seemed clear that contemporary art can and should have a local thematic reference and an international language, and that it should be built around world centres. In different epochs these could have been New York, London or Berlin. What has happened recently in Ukraine, it seems, has already happened as far back as in the 19th century: uprisings, revolutions, the birth of a nation etc. And this responsibility before a place, which seems to be completely outdated, passé and conservative from the outside, is similar to the whole situation in Ukraine, that seems to be regressive for many people. That is to say, there appears to be a clash between a personal attitude, a personal responsibility and the context, in such a way that the latter is seen from the outside and imposes itself as a universal principle. Everybody should find his or her way through this uneasy zone, partly out of his or her own feeling, partly with a help of those who are like-minded artistically. Only then the very feeling of the truth can appear, which you might share with others.

Geopoetics I, 2003

Performance and installation at the group exhibition Guilt, Pinchuk Art Centre, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2016

Two men, dressed in Jewish and Georgian traditional costumes, sit and chat in front of a wall with several panels presenting black and white photos of monuments dedicated to World War II. The artist's commentary concludes: ‘It strikes me that ours is the last generation to see the Second World War for what it really was – the greatest disaster in human history. And that break is taking place right now as we lose the last of the eye-witnesses: for all subsequent generations that war will be just a historical fact, just another war in the series: the First World War, the Second World War, the Second Balkan War, The Hundred Years War, The Thirty Years War, the Second Punic War…. The concrete of all the monuments is merging into a sort of indiscernible grey gloom, the contradictory testimonies into a single sticky, idle lump of versions, just like the opening of one of those stupid ‘a Georgian and a Jew bump into one another…’ jokes. And against the background of the ever-fading exaltation of memorials, we have no idea even now of what these theatrical characters are talking about: the Holocaust, the victims of Stalinist repression, the battle for the Caucasus? Or else they just give the impression they’re having these discussions in order to give their support to departing history – if only with such a simple pantomime. - Yuri Leiderman

Performance and installation at the group exhibition Guilt, Pinchuk Art Centre, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2016

Elena Yaichnikova: Could you please specify the links between the aesthetical, ethical and political, that you mention in some of your interviews?

Yuri Leiderman: I often cite Robert Motherwell, who wrote that ‘an act of painting is a series of aesthetical decisions over ethics’. What is ‘aesthetical solving’ about? Obviously it is about the aesthetic event with all its courage, pride, self-sufficiency, and dignity, though these are only possible when pronounced in front of other people. Here we enter into a territory of the political that I understand not in terms of debates in Parliament, but in Heidegger's sense: who traced the word ‘polis’ to the notions of ‘space’ and ‘place’. Place inhabited by people tied together by a commonality of language, history, the day-to-day state of things, and not least by the commonality of a landscape – trees, mountains, sea. I would say that the fact that acacia, chestnut, and black poplar grow in Ukraine, and not in Russia, is ‘political’ for me.

Elena Yaichnikova: Unlike the works of the artists of the ‘Moscow conceptualism’ school, it seems that your works always addressed your personal experience. Is a consideration of a viewer important for you?

Yuri Leiderman: In general my art is rather weakly connected to the practice of ‘Moscow conceptualism’, though I have learnt a lot in this circle and I consider Andrey Monastyrski to be my mentor. However, it is proper for mentees to embrace the practice of their mentors only transversally or tangentially. I was indeed always interested in the personal, in ‘expressionism’ in the most broad and vague sense of the word. At the same time, I was also interested in a kind of a forced and ‘unnecessary’ structuring, an ornamentation of the personal, but not in the spirit of the ‘Moscow conceptualism’ (that is an interpretation), rather in the spirit of ‘‘pataphysics’ as it is manifested in Alfred Jarry's and Raymond Roussel's works. The figure of the viewer of my works is indeed not very often present in my thinking. However, I think of myself as a quite an ordinary person and not a creature from Mars. So, problems that touch me should be also interesting to other people if they are properly expressed aesthetically. And if it doesn't happen, then the expressivity of my work suffers a defeat.

Elena Yaichnikova: After conceptual and geopoetical periods, you have came back lately to painting in a quite expressionist manner that you pursued at the very beginning of your artistic practice. Is a modernist position close to you?

Yuri Leiderman: Certainly. I like an idea once thrown off by Monastyrski that there are two tendencies that always alternate in the history of art – a ‘romantic’ tendency (Mannerism, Romanticism, Modernism...) and a ‘classical’ one (Renaissance, Academism, Classicism, Postmodernism...). One can find it in every region – for example, in Japanese painting of the eighteenth century there was a conventional school, Kano, and an enlightened amateurish school, Nanga. Due to my psychic constitution, I am closer to a ‘romantic’, and accordingly, to a modernist tendency.

Elena Yaichnikova: Is a distinction between modernism and the avant-garde in relation to the art of the twentieth century meaningful for you?

Yuri Leiderman: I know that a pile of art historical books has been written about this question and that it remains a pot of gold for art historical constructions. As for me, I haven't read all these books and I cannot say anything about it. This distinction can give nothing to my work. I prefer to speak more about ‘Modernism’ as formulated before. ‘Avant-garde’ is something more closely related to the art of the beginning of the twentieth century. And, moreover, it is often rather loud. All those manifestos and the yellow shirt of Mayakovsky are not so close to me psychologically.

Elena Yaichnikova: How to deal with the commercialisation of an author's gesture, that the painting is often accused of doing these days?

Yuri Leiderman: For me the problem is not in the commercialisation of an author's gesture, but in its ‘Das Man’. Contemporary art seems to me quite often too ‘normal’, serving average mass-media ideas. It speaks about something that I already know. Lorenzo de Medici sponsored art almost the same way as Abramovic-Zhukova, but he was a progressive man, ‘il Magnifico’. And Abramovic's configuration of consciousness is ‘normal’ and no different from that of an ordinary ‘prole’. You’d just have to swap a ‘Volkswagen’ for the yacht. These are my conservatively romantic views.

Elena Yaichnikova: You mentioned a ‘‘pataphysics’ and an over-normality of many works of contemporary art. In this sense, one can say that turning to absurdity, which has been always present in your works, allows you to prevent art’s falling victim to instrumentalisation and easy illustration. Can we consider absurdity a language, and if yes, to what extent?

Yuri Leiderman: It seems to me, that a formulation ‘turning to absurdity’ is not quite the right term, as ‘absurdity’ doesn't represent a sort of an external reservoir or a technique one can ‘turn to’ at his or her own convenience. Alexander Vvedensky wrote about ‘the star of non-sense’, and it is a gap indeed, a glittering darkness, which is immanent to the world and which addresses us, not vice versa. ‘What is at all the sense of the world's existence?’ ‘Why does something exist rather than nothing?’ ‘Why do art and poetry exist? We might do without...’ Any of these questions pushes us into a zone, in which a difference between absurdity and non-absurdity is not relevant any more. ‘Absurdity’ (nonsense, no-meaning, zaum etc.) is not a certain part of the language we can apply to for ‘using’, but rather a rupture of the language, which is what makes our being in it possible.

Teaching European History to a Cat, 1996

Installation view at the solo exhibition Apprendre l’histoire de l’Europe à un chat, FRAC Champane-Ardenne, Reims, France, 1996

This installation work, made of multiple elements, is described by Yuri Leiderman: ‘While working on this piece I taught my cat the history of Europe. Since animals don’t understand human language, I prepared some teaching ‘aids’ which the cat would hypothetically be able to interpret – all possible sorts of blankets, cloths, fences, cat baskets, cat toys and cat accessories, all following the contours on historical maps and diagrams. Furthermore, it was suggested that as the cat improved his knowledge of European history, the sound of his purring would change. That’s why throughout the whole learning process – it lasted about a month – the cat’s purring was continuously recorded and presented in the form of spectral graphs (in other words a sonogram). The question of whether there had been any changes remained open. However, curiously enough, the sonogram contours did bring to mind the abstract graphic art. The cat’s role in this project was thus linked to that of a sort of instrument of alchemy: which would use one kind of abstract contour (the historical maps) and through its purring transform into another kind, just as abstract and meaningless’.

Elena Yaichnikova: Absurdity suggests a disbelief in a world as an established and accomplished system; it prefers process, becoming. Can we make a parallel with real political instabaility, with a state of war? What is a place of art here? Can we speak of any role of art in this case?

Yuri Leiderman: Becoming, instability, war (in Heraclitus' ‘agonal’ sense of the world) are immanent properties of existence. Regardless of a ‘real’ understanding of ‘war’ or ‘instability’ by newspapers. That is why there is no need to trace parallels – we cannot have any distance when one line is traced parallel to another (‘distance’ is always a lie). Another thing is that I don't understand at all what the role of art is. It can't have any ‘role’. As I have already said, we don't understand and can't understand why art exists in the world. The world could exist without any need for art. It is just a givenness, an invariant. Why does a mountain exist? What is the ‘role’ of the mountain? We can easily imagine another world, another Earth, where there would be no mountains... As one of the American artists of the 1960s, Carl Andre, said, ‘A man climbs a mountain because it is there. A man makes a work of art because it is not there’, and I don't have anything to add to this. Though it is clear that when we look at a mountain (which is ‘already there’) we can and we will persistently think about our country, our ancestors, a future waiting our children, mistakes and fallacies of our own life and all the smallest events that our existence is made of. Something like this happens with art, the only difference being that it is ‘a mountain, which is not there yet’, but for a quite incomprehensible reason we need to pile it on time and time again.

Elena Yaichnikova: What is a collective effort? On which ground is it possible?

Yuri Leiderman: Passion, war, responsibility, love, fidelity, affection, hate, adventure, madness – whatever is connected to a desire of the ‘other’, a different situation, a different world.

A selection of recent painting works without comment

Elena Yaichnikova is a Moscow-born independent curator. Since 2007, she has realised a number of curatorial projects in Russia, France and Croatia, and collaborated with National Center of Contemporary Art in Moscow and Moscow Museum of Modern Art from 2010 till 2017. She is a Research Affiliate at the PhD-Forum of the CCC at the Visual Arts Department, HEAD, Geneva since 2017.