Ukrainian sculptor Oleksii Zolotariov in conversation with Sasha Gomeniuk

By Sasha Gomeniuk

Ukrainian sculptor Oleksii Zolotariov (b. Kiev, 1985) holds a degree in sculpture from the National Academy of Art and Sculpture of Ukraine (2010). His work has featured in exhibitions and projects in Ukraine and abroad, including 'Sculpture Salon 2011' (Art Arsenal, Kiev), 'Kyiv Sculpture Project' * (Kiev Botanical Gardens, 2012), 'BIRUCHIY Contemporary Art Project' (Biruchiy Island, Ukraine 2013) and 'Ukrainian Contemporary Artists' (Saatchi Gallery, London, 2013). In 2012, Forbes Magazine Ukraine named Zolotariov one of 10 best Ukrainian sculptors. In 2013, Zolotariov had a residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (UK) as well as his first solo exhibition in Germany at the WerkKunstGalerie, Berlin. He lives and works in Kiev, Ukraine. 

* When using the Latin alphabet, Ukrainians use 'Kyiv' to spell the country's capital in English.  

Oleksii Zolotariov, Time and Space, 2013
Steel, metal and painted wood. 40 x 48 x 40 cm                

I met Oleksii Zolotariov during my trip to Ukraine this past summer. We were part of a large group standing outside a really loud and crowded bar and art was definitely not the subject of conversation. At some point, however, I made a (geeky) comment about Oleksandr Archipenko, an early 20th century Ukrainian sculptor and before I knew it, Oleksii, his friend and creative collaborator Vasiliy Grubliak and I were talking about sculpture, Ukrainian contemporary art and the avant-garde of the 1930s. When I next visited Ukraine several months later, Oleksii and I sat down to have a slightly more formal discussion about what it means to be an artist in Ukraine, what inspires him and why working as a solo artist is not enough.

You are a young sculptor living and working in Ukraine, where for the past 20 year, law and economics have prevailed as career choice. When did you realise that you wanted to be a sculptor?
I am quite lucky. My mother is a painter and since early childhood tried to expose me to art and everything creative. My stepfather, Oleksandr Dyachenko, is a sculptor and has had a great influence on my development as an artist. When I was 12 years old and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was quite obvious, I wanted to be a sculptor because I had been exposed to the processes it involved ever since I was a child. I tried moulding clay in Dyachenko's studio, for example, and I still have several figures I made back then in my own studio. Dyachenko is still today a very important influence although I am gradually departing from his aesthetics. I think the process of departure started about two years ago and pieces like Movement of Suprematism, Pear and Wind Rose are definitely a step away, which I am very happy about. I am searching for my own language. 

Oleksii Zolotariov, Wind Rose, 2012
Rusty metal and concrete. installation view at Kyiv Sculpture Park 2012                

Do you now have a clear idea of where you want this search to take you?  
It is definitely still an ongoing search but I am very comfortable with this process. The topic I am increasingly interested in is the avant-garde and especially the Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1930s. The artists who were part of this movement were also in a constant search. It is a pity that many of them are still relatively unknown or are known as part of the Russian avant-garde.  

Oleksii Zolotariov, Movement and Suprematism, 2012
Stainless steel. 40 x 40 x 35 cm                

How important is it to for you as an artist to differentiate between the Ukrainian and Russian avant-garde?
It is incredibly important. First of all, these movements are very different. The Ukrainian avant-garde has a very distinctive colour scheme – the use of yellow is very important, for example. There are also vast references to local culture and the use of traditional techniques. Yes, there are none of these references in my works - for now - but what I am interested in is the re-interpretation of this movement in contemporary terms. The 1920s and 1930s saw a real art boom in Ukraine but it was quickly over so I am interested in exploring the possibilities that were left unexplored. The Movement of Suprematism is a direct nod in that direction. My latest work, Closed Angle, which I presented at the BIRUCHIY Contemporary Art Project, is all about geometry and colour as used by the avant-gardists. This work, actually, is the first piece I made with my colleague Vasiliy Grubliak.

GAZ Group, Close Angle, 2013
Painted steel pipe. Installation view at BIRUCHIY Contemporary Art Project, August 2013                

GAZ Group, Close Angle, 2013
Painted steel pipe. Installation view at BIRUCHIY Contemporary Art Project, August 2013

Are you now working as an artist duo too?
Yes, we are GAZ Group, a Zolotariov-Grubliak collaboration, so to speak. 

Why did you decide to do this? Is it a search for something new or an urge to make work that you would not necessarily produce as a solo artist?
First of all, it's much more interesting to work with someone (laughing). We have known each other for a very long time, since we were 12 years old. We have a production base - a studio/foundry where we produce our work and this is separate to my personal studio and practice. So in a way we have already been collaborating for a while. Although we never referred to it that way, we did have an idea to do a project together. 

So this was more planned than spontaneous…
Oh yes, it was simmering somewhere in the back of our minds. It is indeed very interesting and challenging to work as a duo and to answer your previous question, it does give me an opportunity to explore and make work that I wouldn't necessarily make on my own. We are even thinking of doing performances! So yes, there are definitely two separate creative entities - Zolotariov the artist and Zolotariov-Grubliak the collaborative duo.

GAZ Group, Chariot of Perestroika, 2013
Installation view at BIRUCHIY Contemporary Art Project, August 2013 

Coming back to the point in your life when you decided that you wanted to be a sculptor, was it clear that you wanted to pursue a formal art education in Kiev as opposed to going abroad?
Not at all. At the time when I was graduating from high school, my mother, also an artist, had just moved to Berlin and there was a possibility to go and study and work there. I had that option but I made a decision to stay in Ukraine. I still go abroad very often and these experiences of seeing other artists' work, talking to artists abroad - they are very important. Actually, one of my most memorable experiences was visiting Nigel Hall's London studio as part of my residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

My Ukrainian identity keeps me grounded, I don’t want to leave my roots. Even now, when a lot of artists are moving abroad, I still don't feel like leaving. I want to be based in Ukraine and work in Ukraine yet have the opportunity to see the broader international art practices. So far it is working. I feel that context - the feeling of the real - is very important for an artist. All the difficulties - the fall of the Soviet Union, the restructuring of the economy, the slow social, political and economic development - they have become a very interesting basis for many artists since there is so much potential and not just in art. I think it makes sense for me to work in Ukraine. 

But that's exactly the thing - a lot of local artists work in this context, to the extent that their art is very politically and socially engaged. This often makes it is quite hard for outsiders to understand the message. Obviously, art will always react to political and social issues but what is interesting about Ukrainian art is that so much of it is doing exactly that. What are your thoughts on this? You tend to make more abstract pieces that are not as contextualised (albeit with art historical references to 1930s avant-garde).
For me art is not about a conversation. It can provoke dialogue but it is not a conversation in and of itself. It is a channelling of a thought or of a particular force; each object is a transmitter that amasses energy. I try to inject a specific thought into every object I make as I think this helps me communicate with the viewer. I think that today’s conditions - when you have multiple channels of communication and there is a constant flow of information – these conditions breed protest art and that is something I am very far from. I like art for art’s sake.  

Oleksii Zolotariov, Angle of VIew, 2012
Steel, 25 x 48 x 25 cm  

So the aesthetic outweighs the political and the social?
I am part of the social therefore, one way or another, it still finds its way into my art. For example Wind Rose is not really just about the object as such. You can look at it as a metaphor for Ukraine's development as a country – multi vector, steep, and rusty. Even though the work is quite formal in itself, it still bares these references. After all, I do have these ideas and socio-political concepts in the back of my mind. They just have to be filtered so that they do not overpower the aesthetics. When I was visiting Nigel Hall’s studio in London, I had a chance to speak to him and it felt really good as it turns out my process of thinking about my art is very similar to his. It was sort of a reassuring moment in the sense that I realised that I am on the right path. 

During your residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park you had a chance to see lots of seminal works by internationally renowned artists, masterpieces of contemporary sculpture. How did that feel? Was that inspirational or maybe slightly intimidating?
I just felt incredibly happy! The residency wasn't long - 7 or 8 days - but every single day was like a new discovery. Apart from the works, I also got to see how the park works from within. I got to sit in at the annual programme meeting where the set of shows for the entire year was decided. There's a definite idea of what needs to be done and when - an idea that you want to get from point A to point B (unlike in Ukraine - where everything is decided in the last minute). There is a clear idea about development and going forwards, which influences the forming of the collection, the atmosphere and the park as an organisation altogether. Despite the fact that YSP is located in quite a remote part of the country and not too close to big cities, there are visitors there every day. This shows you that this is an incredibly important institution, which has a very strong presence on the cultural map. What I found very interesting (and this is something I have been thinking about for a long time in relationship to my own practice) is that my works are changed in size to fit the scale of the park or the location where they are placed. Many artists think that their work can exist only in a specific size - the way you initially create it - but I have always thought that is not right and both at Yorkshire and during the visit to Nigel Hall's studio, this idea got reaffirmed. For example, some of the works that were in my solo show in Berlin and were later shown at Saatchi Gallery are smaller-scale versions of large public space works.

Oleksii Zolotariov, Movement of Suprematism
        Rusty metal, concrete, stainless steel. Photo: Maria Bykova

While visiting your studio I also saw the same work being done in several different materials.
Yes, for me this is an ongoing experiment. Since Vasiliy Grubliak and I opened the workshop, I have had a chance to try out different materials. We use any material that can create volume, anything from wood to steel to plastic or feathers. I can observe how materials react to different environments, how easy or hard they are to work with, etc. This experience allowed me to be quite conformable with using them in my work as I know how to achieve exactly the result I need.

Oleksii Zolotariov, Molecule, 2013
Painted wood. 40 x 40 x 40 cm 

Is there a material that you are most comfortable working with?
Recently I have been using steel quite a lot, something I plan to continue doing for several new pieces. I also have ideas for works in wood and concrete. These are fascinating materials that I am quite eager to explore. 

What are your plans for the future? There are several exciting things happening right now - you have several works in public spaces and there are plans for more; you did a residency at YSP; you had a solo show in Berlin; your works were shown at Saatchi Gallery and you are constantly included in shows in Ukraine. You have even been named one of Ukraine's top 10 sculptors.  What's next?
Hard work (laughs).

Oleksii Zolotariov, Meeting, 2013
Stainless steel, h:150 cm. Installation view of Industrial Eden, Modern Art Research Institute, Kiev, 2013  

Is being constantly busy - with tons of things happening at the same time - a normal state for you? Do you feel comfortable with this or can it be overwhelming?
I feel quite comfortable as I need things to be happening. It is a bit exhausting but it all brings experience, not just in terms of the practice but also emotionally. For example, several weeks ago, I was coming back from Berlin and during the stopover in Frankfurt I got a call from the organisers of the Boris Voznitsky Award - a national award that celebrates museum workers and staff - asking me to make the statuettes for the ceremony. So there I was, sitting in Frankfurt Airport, thinking to myself: how am I going to do this? Right after Berlin I had to go to BIRUCHIY as my works were shown there, and that, together with my trip back from Berlin, gave me almost no time to complete these works. But you have to think on your feet and so I came up with an idea, right there, in Frankfurt Airport. It was a great honour to participate in this project as it is such a great cause - it celebrates museums and museum workers, people behind the scenes who are very often, at least in Ukraine, overshadowed by artists. 

But, to come back to the point I was making earlier, this multitasking, busy environment is very stimulating. It allows you to think in different ways and explore news things. I am very optimistic about what is happening in the Ukrainian art scene now because I know there are so many people who are just like that - who think on the go, who make things happen. Very often it is all based on personal enthusiasm rather than motivated by a financial reward, which is even more inspiring. I am sure the financial side will catch up but we have to keep up the pace.