Oleksa Mann
Photo Tomi Bodov for Craft
by Inga Esterkina
Short profile

Ukrainian artist, essayist, art curator, art director, illustrator, and blogger.

For me, each conversation with the artist Olexa Mann is an experience — not simply interesting, but a complex experience that demands contemplation.

I’m speaking for myself here, but his countless followers on social media could attest to this as well. And I’d like to note that right now, we’re talking about an artist whose latest, most prolonged in time work is the graphic novel “Codex”, which does not contain a single letter and was made using solely plastic visual means of expression. It must be said that those who follow Olexa Mann’s art career as well as, say, his Facebook account — can see two seemingly incompatible methods of expression that bizarrely do not interfere with one another. “Bizarrely” because the strict graphic imagery and perfectly organized letters, which one and all call back to the austerity of Medieval and Renaissance-era atlases, are combined with curt unambiguity, decorated with obscenities and that which has been called “the language of city blocks” ever since the times of the “Satyricon.” Sarcasm, irony, merciless vivisection of the favorite cherries on top of soviet and post-soviet cakes combined with a surgically precise breakdown of the deepest human fears. That which beats and aches beneath the perennial layering of dead, alien words and imaginations — that place in the depths of one's skull where we find ourselves — and only ourselves.

This question is addressed to you as a leading culturologist — and I say this without a hint of irony — do you think that Ukraine has, perhaps, discovered something never before seen in human history? I mean these horizontal connections that now stretch in all directions. Modern history is being built right in front of us, is it not?

— Thank you, of course, for the “leading culturologist” part, but still, I remain an artist, and all of my achievements in this area are still the commentaries of an artist. Yes, history is being made here and now. Its uniqueness is that, during a critical moment in Ukraine, public initiatives supersede the state apparatus. Like the effects of lightning, there is no time for shock. The entire Western world is losing its mind over how quickly the people here organized in the face of danger. I’d say that right now, in contemporary history, Ukraine has utilized its horizontal connections most efficiently and effectively.

Here we should agree on some terminology so we all understand what we’re talking about. Like one taken out of a dictionary, almost. Horizontal connections are the opposite of vertical connections, which combine levels of hierarchy into organizations and represent the separation of powers or point toward your place in a hierarchical setting. Vertical connections become inefficient when information used in decision-making passes through multiple levels of hierarchy, especially when they’re distanced far from one another. There’s such a thing as the “broken telephone” effect, which slows the entire process of communication and creates a real danger as information gets twisted. Because of this, society may take heavy losses.

Horizontal connections are those that exist between equal members of society, and their primary purpose is to facilitate productive interaction in society as well as to deal with problems and risks that may arise from it. In practice, these connections have been widely used in our society both during the 2013-2014 revolution and during the war. They demonstrate their effectiveness even when the nation is in danger and has temporarily lost its ability to fulfill its obligations to protect its citizens. Thanks to these connections, we can still function, both as a government institution and a cultural community. Our society is self-regulated thanks to horizontal connections. Especially when considering that Ukrainian society has shattered imposed totalitarian practices and is itself a completely anarchic construct, though formally preserving all attributes of statehood. And all of this will be studied in military academies all over the world because this is exactly why we can fight back so fiercely in a war against an opponent that has a clear advantage, both in military and in resources. What is most interesting is that these connections are created continuously, like some kind of DNA. At first, there were none, then a moment later — here they are, springing up without any kind of hierarchy.

On the one hand, right now there is an ongoing attack on the Dovzhenko Center, which had long ago become some kind of litmus paper for the government. On the other hand, cultural figures in Ukraine are showing an absolutely staggering activity spike. What’s happening with the public opinion of culture in Ukraine? Why is it that, in all the years of independence, the government has changed many times but the attitude towards culture as a whole, as well as towards individual cultural figures, has remained, to put it delicately, cautious? Like, “when I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”?

— It so happened that just a few days prior to this attack on the Dovzhenko center, I was offered to make a large-scale exhibition of my “Codex” there. We were supposed to be negotiating about that right now, I was going to write to my colleagues that took part in this project, start planning ahead, and so on. Because the people who thought to organize this understand that this may very well be the only such cultural center, which already has an audience that will understand this and who will be interested in this. That is, the team over at the Center has reared their audience to be intelligent and understanding. And then over here, these suck-up vermin that can rear nothing but imbeciles decided to nick it for themselves during all the chaos. Taking advantage of the fact that criticizing the government is “currently inappropriate.” And the society that yields to these shit-eaters is preoccupied with their own lives, and more specifically — with trying to survive through the biggest war on the European continent since World War II, along with its weapons and the genocide that our eastern neighbors started. It’s just the peak of government cynicism. And so, in practice, our aforementioned horizontal connections kick in, which have a good chance of putting a stop to the situation. The people who want to nab the Dovzhenko Center right now don’t understand the kind of tectonic shifts that have happened over the past few years, when young, educated, and committed people have taken positions of power in government institutions and changed these institutions to actually be a center of cultural attraction and not an archaic piece of post-soviet land for some bigwig and his cronies to gorge themselves on.

The problem is that in Ukraine, there are two kinds of culture existing alongside one another. The official kind, also called malorossian or sharovary culture, whose origin we can trace back to the USSR with its big sentiments towards “Russian peace” and “the Soviet days”, and whose narratives are being pushed by all means available to the government and the oligarchy. And it’s pushed by Russia as well because this stance favors them strategically and tactically. This is a serious push, one with a serious amount of resources involved. It’s a sort of cultural ersatz, a kind of cargo cult, a copy of an airplane made out of straw, shit, and sticks. And that’s the officially supported culture. And on the other hand, we have what we can call the modern Ukrainian culture, which has the whole spectrum – from mainstream trends to counter-culture. This culture, if it’s supported by the government at all, has to fight tooth and nail for each and every step forward. Its origins are much more well-rooted in history, but it’s underground history.

Something that must be understood is that modern war is a war for identity. People aren’t willing to die and kill for some kind of political or economic freedoms, but they will fight to protect their identity. This is exactly the kind of war we’re having right now, and it’s the first of its kind on the European continent. In other words, modern war decides who will be in charge of the cultural politics in a certain territory, first and foremost. And not economic politics or tax politics or whatever. The primary thing being targeted here is identity. And the ethnicity component plays no part in this. Whatever you call yourself and understand yourself to be – that’s who you are. Russians don’t just perfectly understand this, they began the war with genocide. They perfectly understand that culture is the main weapon in this war. And that’s precisely why their first order of business is to force their culture upon us, and to lay waste to everything that is somehow related to Ukrainian culture. And they also understand that we know this, too. Whether or not our government understands this with its “what’s the difference?” political program and demonstrative ignorance of any kind of cultural strategy aside from primitive drunken stumbling – now that’s the question. But among the massive amount of people who did understand are the ones who actually decide our cultural policy, and as you must realize, that’s not some ministry of culture. It is, once again, those horizontal connections. There is a new societal convention that involves directly canceling anything tied to the imperialistic and chauvinistic russsian culture as the root cause of this modern russian nazism and the genocide it has created.

“This whole scandal around the memorial to Mozart junior honestly reveals a very important and very poorly articulated aspect in our society: how does a modern artist live in a society where, as a result of historical cataclysms, all artistic traditions have been violently sundered.” Your quote. My question is – do you have a plan? What kind of work must be done with society? Maybe, getting over the post-soviet generational trauma? If at all possible, what should cultural activists do?

— This memorial to Mozart junior was a natural trigger that uncovered many not yet articulated themes and wounds our society carries. From the fact that people don’t understand what art is, nor the laws it follows as it develops, nor where we are now in its development, to the complete crash of high values and completely corporate interests of some old farts, who decided they have a monopoly on the public space and will spend the rest of their days making monuments to their “suits,” where the only difference is that Lenin’s head is swapped out for Bandera’s. This memorial had to be installed in a public space not just because modernist sculpture and art are practically nonexistent in our spaces – or rather, it only exists in very small amounts and quickly get lost among all these endless “suits” – but also to catalyze and give a hands-on demonstration of our level of public discussion, where infantiles, whose pre-pubescent child-like minds only think in fecalic freudian categories, aren’t just unashamed of gutting modern art in public – they revel in it. And we needed to do this to see the abyssal darkness of these grimaces and to understand what we can work with.

Plans are the luxury of cultural managers. The plan of an artist is to speak out in the most effective ways, to keep working, to generate meaning, and never to stay silent. Although as an example, there’s also this kind of plan: cultural activists should first take whatever it is that they understand the word “culture” to mean and filter that a bit. And to sit down and figure out what time period and context they find themselves in. And to understand their responsibility for everything they drag into this world, into this society, and what they subscribe to. And better yet – what they don’t subscribe to and leave unsaid. Because I always get this question: if this whole society of conformists and layabouts, with some exceptions, are all artists and culturologists – then what does that make us? So, they probably aren’t. And by “us” I mean a small percentage of like-minded people. That’s exactly why I’m not part of any communities or groups right now. I have very serious questions for a quite significant part of the overarching cultural community who brought these sentiments here. All these vatnik and half-vatnik soviet circle jerkers, the ones who dragged their nazist russian peace here with all their might, or their nonexistent pseudo communism that they thought was real in some fantastical wonderland of Germany or France, which both have completely different situations with their own problems and whose opinion of self-cannibalizing ideologies is perfectly amicable, because they didn’t live through them. To them, this is something exotic yet completely acceptable in democratic societies.

Because a stalinist professor in Berkeley or a maoist professor at Stanford are incomparably different from a stalinist FSB operative who’d torture you to death for your democratic views, or a hoe-wielding maoist who’d smash your head in for them. And they were the ones who pushed these ideas here, but with completely different input data, and in return, they got their brownie points, not understanding that the reality they’re in is a post-totalitarian Ukraine living on the rubble of a chauvinistic empire. Of course, they don’t think of it that way, they just think it to be some light nearsightedness, and they’re the white coats we need. Well, if you really are a nearsighted idiot, then go look what came of all this. Sure, now they changed their tunes right quick and started stamping the same conjectural bullshit with a different polarity, and now they’re going to start lecturing us on why the old stuff was just done wrong. And then there are others who decided to shut up and sit tight, waiting to see how the story ends.

These issues are also important to those who are trying to drag in various “good russians”, who don’t exist a priori due to the imperial and chauvinistic base their minds developed on into the public space. And they’re the ones currently crawling out of all the woodwork because they know they’re losing good faith and all their imperial advantages, and with Ukraine’s victory, they’ll also lose their identity, which will lead to a collapse of their individuality. They feel this on a subconscious level, so our victory is a bad prospect for them. They want their army to win so they can avoid responsibility, repentance and reparations that’ll come no matter how much they shout that they’re “anti-war,” “we’re for peace,” “it’s all putin’s fault” and “glory to Ukraine.” Yes, the cleverest of them have taken a liking to these buzzwords nowadays. Like people with a slave mentality, they can’t truly accept a Ukrainian victory, and for them, this acceptance leads to a horrible existential crisis. In this, they are no different from outright modern nazis, no matter how much mimicry they hide behind. Not to mention they’re also completely bankrupt, having betrayed their country that is now overrun with nazi ideologies. Bankrupt people must stay silent because they aren’t in a position to say anything. To listen to one is to disrespect yourself.

We have been acquainted for quite a while. My question to you is, how does complete individualism – since being an artist is a very lonely kind of work – how does it combine with your obvious decision to work with society, to approach people? Currently, I’m interested in the internal aspect of your work and how you work with yourself.

— My “working with the people” is a great exaggeration by yourself, I undertake no such mission. It’s more that I exist beyond society. All of my channels for communication, be it social media or public presentations in congresses or museums – are usually part of art projects, oftentimes absurdist ones. Because it’s a wonderful thing to wax complete absurdity with a straight face. To be honest with you, I’m an utter misanthrope and sociopath. I don’t like people, and quite deservedly so, in my opinion. I have to constantly work on myself, hammer myself into shape continuously so I can properly communicate, and, as you put it, “approach the people.” In spite of all my dislikes, frankly, I have precious little to say to the people. It’s mostly just small talk.

There is a terrible war going on. It will end in victory. Then, all of us will have to work on trauma. What will be the role of the artist? Are there any examples you can suggest from history? Or will cultural achievements and the past be seldom helpful to Ukraine?

— Nothing cleans and restructures the brain as art does. The artist’s role will be, as always, in processing the experiences of the people. And in creating new meaning from it, some of them may possibly help get over this trauma. These meanings will be the foundation of post-war society. Art is a universal tool for study and reevaluation of existence. But art is not psychotherapy, far from it. Although sometimes it can be. Its job is the opposite, to vivisect all the rotted pustules so proper surgery can begin. And sometimes, that surgery is amputation. Art is often a very painful thing.

And on top of that, the artist’s own biography may sometimes, in the most literal sense, have nothing to do with his work or his impact on the culture. There’s a certain type of artist, like Giorgio Morandi, whose life comprised two terrible world wars, fascism in Italy, and groundbreaking societal shocks, and he effectively spent all of that time fanatically painting in his workshop, creating his still lifes and etchings. Walking every single day to his studio through his sisters’ room, apologizing for the disturbance every time. And humbly teaching graphical techniques at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna. And at first glance, of course, we see no visible, or so to speak, declarative reflections of what was happening “outdoors.” Although they present. And as a result, he is one of the most influential and complex artists of the XX century. And in the meantime, say, Picasso was always in the epicenter of social life, in constant reflection of what was happening around him, an artist of countless directions and trends who influenced everyone and everything that moved, the creator of “Guernica,” the most terrifying work about war and the main anti-war painting of the previous century, made by a man who never fought himself. Meanwhile, Siqueiros spent his whole life with a rifle in hand, took part in revolutions and wars, spent countless years in various prisons, took an active political stance – a scientist, inventor, and creator of kilometers of frescoes and thousands of paintings, to the point where you just don’t understand when he had the time for it all in his life. Absolutely different kinds of artists and different interactions between biography and art. But as a result, they all have their own place and evoke nothing but awe and respect.

“The Black Period.” That which you called “An Homage to Dutch Still Life“ in your conversation with The Artist. These works look like a prophecy. How did they come to you? In dreams? Analysis of reality? Was it a summary of everything that was going on? Did you sense that war was coming? Did you draw conclusions from some series of events? “The times when Europe believed it could solve all problems through negotiation have come to an end; we’ve returned to a military state. Unfortunately, we need heroes once again, in the simplest military definition of the word. Heroes that are ready to risk their lives. And the problem with all those pacifistic leftists is that they really don’t want to lose their comfortable existence.” Quote from Slavoj Žižek, as you know. I’d also like to mention my favorite quote by Stephen King: “We had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead,” he said about his generation. Suddenly, the world is trapped in a situation where it needs heroes. The question is whether there are any left.

— Dreams are, by the way, something I thankfully haven’t been seeing for a long time now. Or rather, I don’t remember them. Dreams are the last thing I need these days. There’s enough stress in real life as is, even without dreams. All those “prophecies” come from the task of designing a perfect artistic world, one that would be convincing. And if it turns out convincing, then there’ll be a place for all these “prophecies” of the future. Right now, everything is located within the confines of logic, critical thinking, and analytics. The task of an artist is to generalize. Some errors are bound to happen, of course, but it works. It all comes from professional skills, gained from spending your entire life combining compositions by means of generalizing. Light to dark, or vice versa – dark to light, in tonal construction. And that, respectively, translates automatically to surrounding events, and life in general. “The Black Period” is, so to speak, a flexible asceticism, in which you deliberately limit yourself in everything. It becomes a sort of religious practice. Meanwhile, religious practice either drives you completely nuts or brings insight and illumination. And oftentimes, they’re the same thing. That’s just how it goes. All and any practices have their ways of reorganizing and transforming you somehow, oftentimes on a structural level. Of course, I didn’t really “sense” that war was coming, but I understood it. Any person capable of thought and reasoning would understand it. You don’t have to be a prophet. There’s no place here for mysticism. I had an understanding that we as a society have made such a quantum jump in the direction of freedom that russia and russians, as carriers of mass totalitarian consciousness, wouldn’t be able to let that stand. They want to destroy us as a species. And that’s exactly what’s happening now, in the form of genocide that they organized. It is essential to understand what totalitarian consciousness is and how it works. In particular, totalitarian consciousness imposed on a culture of poverty and messianism of "higher and greater culture." For them, it transformed into a new form of nazism, which acts as their mass ideology and driving force. Which is essentially what we are facing now, and why we’re at war. This is a war of ideas. Collective ones. And our collective idea is more productive and modern, which is why we will win.

Now, on the topic of heroes. A hero, in a purely classical sense, is a person who takes on more responsibility than people who are guided by generally accepted norms of behavior. Right now, this possibility has come into full bloom as a factor. We ended up in such a heartbreaking context — or rather, we ourselves have created it with our desire for freedom and our fight against totalitarian practices. I have no questions as to whether heroes yet remain in this world. They are among us. I am happy to know some of them personally. It’s a great honor. Though, heroism should not be confused with altruism. A hero is born only in borderline situations of severe risk, whenever there is something to lose. We, like no one else, have something to lose — our freedom and choice of civilization.

You mentioned many times in our conversations that history is accelerating and the world is changing at an increasing rate. Where do you think we are headed?

— We are flying towards a new world of a completely new social contract. A more productive one, with much more space dedicated to human rights and freedoms, to European and democratic values. I don't want to be a complete idealist, but there are signs that this will happen. This war will affect everything and everyone. It's already having an impact. Such global social upheavals will change the consciousness of more than one generation. We are, relatively speaking, living through a year every day. This is the essence of the world’s acceleration. All these bugs and problems, which have not been worked out over the decades, must be ironed out and soldered at a simply cosmic pace, in spite of any resistance. War is always binary. On the one hand, it is always a great tragedy, on the other hand — it is a serious rethinking and action that would normally never be taken. And such rethinking leads to progress and new relations in society.

If you’d like, could you name some Ukrainian artists who would get a place in your ideal museum of modern art? Or not just Ukrainian ones.

— There are quite a lot of such names. I don't think it's worth listing them now, singling them out. Otherwise, some people might be forgotten, and that's simply unethical. The situation is such that, in the conditions of a complete lack of state support and art-conscious business, in spite of the fragility of art institutions and their minimal amounts, I can say that modern art is at quite a high level in our country. Something keeps reminding me of the words of one famous British artist, whose resume is so impressive that any MOMA or Guggenheim would simply combust looking at it, and he has long been represented in a myriad of serious museums; and at a symposium of contemporary art, Biryuchy said that he was simply shocked at the level of works of artists he’s seeing here, while his colleagues over in London’s galleries and museums and such don’t even suspect it. He even says he began to look at them differently after that. It was in private conversation, and it didn't sound like a compliment at all, but rather an expression of a high degree of surprise, bordering on exasperation. And that’s despite the fact that he knew perfectly well that nobody needs modern art in our country. If only he knew how well we understood it ourselves, written in our own skins and biographies. My only wish is that, if such a museum is created, I hope it doesn’t end with crony feuds, and for different views to be presented in it. Because with our current reality, that’s the only trouble it could really face. And that’s a trouble that we should very seriously work on.

Short profile

Ukrainian artist, essayist, art curator, art director, illustrator, and blogger.