Oleg Tistol
by Inga Esterkin
Short profile

Oleg Tistol is a contemporary Ukrainian artist, painter, graphic artist, sculptor, author of objects and installations, a representative of Ukrainian neo-baroque and one of the leaders of the “New Ukrainian Wave”. Together with Mykola Matsenko he founded the Natsprom group. His works are in museums and private collections in Ukraine, Europe, and the US. He lives and works in Kyiv.


Artists, with the development of technology, seem to delve further and further into the realm of the unknown. The realm of the unknown is, of course, human nature. No matter what you say, it remains the same. No matter if it is accompanied by explanations and comments, apocrypha, biblical images, artificial intelligence, or cyborgs. The more technology develops, the freer artists are, not limited by the framework of the craft, the boundaries of the canvas, and the quality of materials. Why am I saying all this? To convey in two words my feelings from visiting Oleg Tistol's studio.

How can I put this? Here is an easel, of course, and paint. But the most interesting thing that can happen is a spirit that flies beyond everything, and not just over any accessories of skill or "household items". This time, I was lucky enough to visit this workshop last fall, despite the quarantine. So I wanted to talk about the most important thing — and everything in the world.

I'll start with the basic question because such questions are useful. We have talked to you about this topic more than once, but the topic is far from over. There is a demand for visual art because people have eyes, and often it’s enough. And yet - how to open those eyes? How to move from the usual, what the eye no longer notices, to what is happening now? And what makes an artist modern? What are the specific features of a modern artist? For example, artists now use different media, ideally reinventing their visual language each time. For example, you are constantly reinventing your language.

— Do you mean "actual artist"? I want to clarify because the sign of civilization is the accuracy of definitions. If we talk about the "actual artist", my conclusion of recent months, not even years, this is, firstly — a reasonable person. That is, a person who lives in living reality, modern reality, and explores it. This is a person who very adequately and critically evaluates his/her city in history.

I’ll explain!

Well, for example, the current artist of his time Leonardo da Vinci, reasonably assessing the situation, came up with, among other things, all sorts of helicopters, tanks, and other ferry crossings in the city of Basel. This is just a person who has reasonably assessed the need for certain items and inventions. Who were the artists before? Artists used to be film directors, IT specialists, and pathologists — that is, the most advanced part of society.

Today the term "artist" is no longer relevant. That is, the term is understood by the majority of the population, and, unfortunately, the artists themselves. You say "artist" — and immediately imagine a person who paints. If you are a little "advanced", you imagine a person who also takes photos. Thus, the concept is immediately limited to some narrow tool. In fact, an actual artist is a person with a reasonable worldview with the need to convey this worldview to others. This is a contemporary artist. How does he/she do it? It absolutely doesn't matter. And the more effectively he/she does so, the brighter and clearer it is, such as Jeff Koons [a contemporary American artist whose work is among the most expensive in the world; prone to kitsch, especially in sculpture — ed.], the more reasonable it is, and the more modern.

That is, do you mean that the media, or, say, a craft, and in general, the sphere of materials’ resistance — all this does not matter?

— Of course. And such was once, well, for example, Vincent van Gogh. Who is Van Gogh? A talented, mad dude who was terribly interested in the arrangement of the universe. He was both a miner and a priest; he tried a lot in life. And, thus, he came to the conclusion that art is the shortest path to God and to determine man's place under the sun. That graphic language, the language of Japanese pop cards, is the closest to the truth. And the graphic language of Van Gogh was terribly fashionable at the time when the language of Japanese graphics, postcards, were brought in large quantities from Japan. This language had no material value there, only cultural. So Van Gogh united the "Land of the Rising Sun" with the countries of the setting sun. These graphic language holders ​​cost a penny, so the French bought them in tons, brought them to France, and sold them at a slightly higher price. From there came modernism and art nouveau as a style…

And these are all signs of relevance. Reason!

Also, there was Andy Warhol with his Marilyn Monroe. This is reason. This is not what he was sitting and thinking — how to make a new Mona Lisa ?! No. Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn all around, and they're from the same circle - so why not? That all was terribly simple. But very bold.

So it's easy to catch what's in the air or feel the trends…

— And the second sign of actual contemporary art, it doesn’t matter if you are an artist or not, in a broad sense — it's courage. For example, my daughter [musician, composer of music and lyrics, singer En Rosen - ed.] is very brave. To step over socialization, stubbornly write her texts, draw her drawings, and at the same time constantly withstand the pressure of society, "Well, girl, you have no real job, no breadwinner", well, and so on… This is the minimum private courage.

Next comes the courage of the gesture itself as well as speech.

If you are a reasonable artist, you understand that if what you are drawing today was already painted by you yesterday, it is boring. And if you do today what will be fashionable tomorrow, you will not sell it. Most likely, you just will not understand today. That in itself is a terribly painful thing because most people prefer the short path to prosperity - to go to work every day because there is a salary. This is a survival strategy. And with the actual artists, in any case, the survival strategy does not work because they are the people of the future.

What is it like to be reasonable today? I will explain. For example, I know that the separatists have seized Donetsk, so I know that the art market is over for the next two years. I just tell myself, “calm down”. Now the Taliban have seized Kabul, so the exhibition in Chicago will have to wait. You know, such things… You just live the life of the whole planet at once!

According to you, the artist is the central point in the world coordinate system. Where he/she is, there is the center ...

— Then we move on to the mystical level of understanding that you are part of the universe, and everything gets even deeper and even scarier. You realize that let's put it primitively, the impressionist pixels, and, say, Cezanne's short strokes, that they, in principle, are an attempt to decipher the will of God… Then geography, as a system of the universe, expands to infinity.

And to know all this, you need to be not so much an educated person as "interested". You have to be bold to be impudent.

A very interesting mystical story with these shadows. I mean the Shadows Project. I was in the right place at the right time, that is, last fall in your studio, and I would like to understand this game.

— Look, I am often asked — how long did the painting take? For example, in the afternoon I drew a silhouette. You came in the evening, and the picture was ready. And the beginning of history is 1987.

I saw the first shadow on the wall in 1987, the shadow of Marina [Maryna Skugareva, a contemporary artist, a well-known participant in the Ukrainian art process, a Kyiv beauty, Oleg Tistol's wife — ed.] in Baryshiv's studio. I decided to draw it, finally, in 2012. This whole period had passed to make it as easy as it is now. It means that the final diagnosis — what it was and why it is needed — does not yet exist. That is, I understand that in this — let's call it a normal world —, we will make a diagnosis later for a project. I feel the mystical component very strongly, but… The point is that in the process of working on any painting, especially if it is a very successful picture, in the end you exclaim: "Well, holy shit! Where does it come from?!” I know where. It turns out that I am supposedly a cool Ukrainian artist, but in fact, I am a very modest lens from the Universe ona small part of the territory. This is the worldview, and again, adequate self-perception.

The lens needs resources: cleaning cloth, and a good camera to insert it into… This is a conversation about socialization, and we can go further in our conversation even to the topic of the art market, and so on. But where did it come from and where is it going? It would be nice if girls like you worked on it to understand, from a literary and cultural point of view. Then we connect Natalka [Natalia Matsenko, art critic, curator ed.] This is the work of a huge team, as you know, because she has worked on large team projects.

What is culture? Culture is when a bunch of people gather and start working on a cultural phenomenon. I watched the concert on Independence Day. A lot of people came together, first of all — directors and IT specialist — and together they did such a great job that even I listened to the musicians, who in other circumstances I can't even imagine how I would listen to. But the team made a bright show of the level of Las Vegas. What is the conclusion? If a cultural phenomenon becomes a bunch of professional, conscious people with a noble purpose, they succeed.

It's good that you mentioned Independence Day. You know, Ukraine, especially when you live far from it, is perceived as a dynamic, living organism. And life is chaotic. Order and symmetry concern death, not life. Ukraine is very much alive in its combination of very different people and groups, with different moods. As for independence… Independence is not only a great achievement, but also a basic value. It is very sad when people value independence only after they lose it. Independence is the air we breathe. Ukraine, no matter how difficult it is, breathes the air of independence and lives by it.

— This is about life and death. In Ukraine, according to certain conclusions, like those of the Americans and the Israelis, human life is priceless. Our neighbor, with whom we are at war, does not value life at all. There are cultures where life has no value - only death has a value. It's supposed to be pathetic, but it is like this. August 24, Ukrainian Independence Day, also my birthday, and the list needs to be continued: "Independence from Russia Day", whether from The Russian Federation, The USSR, or whatever they are called later… This is the day of independence from this territory, where death comes from. There was always death. How do they assess the war [The Second World War — ed.]? This is not, "How we defeated fascism!". No, it sounds like "Twenty million committed their lives…" The price of victory for them is human units and numbers…

Trampling death by death…

— Ukraine's independence is manifested by Ukraine tearing into NATO and the European Union. Ukrainians are very pragmatic in their hedonism. They want "beauty and joy" and huddle where there is more of this beauty and joy. This is the secret of a huge emigration to Canada, America, Argentina… Today, part of my family lives in Poland. However, in the ethnically Ukrainian territories, in Przemyśl, everything is fine. Therefore, our independence is very important as independence from the whole nightmare in which you and I were born and raised. It is about our innate genetic desire for personal freedom, freedom that is personal responsibility.

What is the problem with the Ukrainian cultural context? Now everyone is whining, "The state does not support us." I am terribly happy, and I tell everyone, “State support makes you employees of the propaganda machine. If you are an employee, then the state pays you millions, and if you do not suit them, then prison, novichok [means "newcomer" in Russian, and applies to a group of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, known as fourth-generation chemical weapons — ed], and Uighur camps are there for you.”

Ukrainian art in an anarchic and beautiful country is a complete victory of folklore. We are all wonderful representatives of urban folklore. I say urban because now we are sitting in Kyiv. We all do folklore. Nobody pays us in advance, nobody uses our art, no matter what it is — an Internet resource, a photo, a picture, or something else. Nobody uses it to promote propaganda and annex a peninsula under the guise of art.
It's just for beauty!

And those of our cultural figures who complain that… well, for example, that people do not buy books. No, if you write a book at the level of "Divine Comedy", it will be swept off the shelves immediately. Make an exhibition at the level of Van Gogh, the queue will stand for three months and five kilometers. Everything is simple here.

It's just that Ukrainians all draw, sing, and take photos; we have very high cultural competition. Because it is so high and the rules are not yet clear to everyone, it seems that our culture is in a secondary state. Well no! The only thing we do is culture, in one way or another. Everything else in our country is forced earnings. Our culture is even to paint your fence, as in the series "Catch Kaidash" [Ukrainian movie based on the novel from the 19th century] where the hero paints his fence in LGBT colors, and a woman breaks the fence with the words, "Go to work." This issue has always been here. If you dig in the "Kobzar"… Who is on our main banknote? An artist and poet. And on other banknotes too, there is Lesya [Lesya Ukrainka - famous Ukrainian writer of the 20th century], for example. And on the banknote of 1,000 hryvnias, there is already Vernadsky, also a cool dude. I would, say, make Marko Vovchok in the hundreds and move Shevchenko to the one thousand. Well, that's it. What is the discussion about? It’s a discussion of cultural context.

Everyone remembers the National project "Ukrainian Money".

"Ukrainian money" was purely about aesthetics, and it was the same in the '80s. In the '90s, the project was a sarcastic reminder: look at its history. Even the first Ukrainian money suited me perfectly. Although I am sure that if paper money is made again, there will be many elements of Georgy Narbut. The cultural context has become such that we can say, “A hundred years ago such a cool dude was born, who made such cool graphics, which, in my opinion, no one could surpass”. I have a collection of all the world's money — I was given it. Georgy Narbut foresaw many things for a hundred years to come. This can only be understood now. How it takes historical distance to understand that all world sculptures are pale followers of Alexander Archipenko [Ukrainian and American avant-garde artist, sculptor, and graphic artist. He was one of the first to apply the principles of Cubism to architecture, analyzing human figures into geometrical forms.]. Galya was erected on the Maidan [the Independence Monument on the main square in Kyiv — ed.], okay. But it would be possible to put Archipenko somewhere there. This would be normal — forms, counterforms… But even now it is not too late. You can always move Galya to some garden and park space, or make another Maidan for Archipenko and for future revolutions.


Translated from Ukrainian by Kateryna Kazimirova


Short profile

Oleg Tistol is a contemporary Ukrainian artist, painter, graphic artist, sculptor, author of objects and installations, a representative of Ukrainian neo-baroque and one of the leaders of the “New Ukrainian Wave”. Together with Mykola Matsenko he founded the Natsprom group. His works are in museums and private collections in Ukraine, Europe, and the US. He lives and works in Kyiv.