Oleksandr Roytburd
by Daryna Anastasieva
Short profile

Oleksander Roytburd is an artist, curator, one of the most expensive contemporary artists in Ukraine. The works of Oleksander Roytburd are kept in many museums, particularly in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Co-founder of the New Art Association, director of the Odessa Art Museum.

The book POYTBURD contains a timeline of your creative biography. The events in the book are described up to the year 2016. What would you add to this line as you continue to write your biography after 2016?

There was Caution, Painted! After that I had a project called Metaphysics of Myth, after — Copies for Substitution, then Valentine's Day, then Love for Three Colorists, and others. This is not counting those works that I have written outside the series. There were a number of exhibitions. 

On the next line of the timeline, I became the director of the Odessa Museum. It was a dramatic story, and it continues. Its drama is still ongoing. At the same time, the government changed in the country: a new president, elections were held in parallel, and for the first time I decided to go to local self-government and became a representative of the Odessa Regional Council and the Odessa City Council. I stopped at the regional one because the regional council is the owner of our museum. This is a continuation of my struggle for the museum.

And nothing else has changed.

In principle, all these events will be enough for the book. Take, for example, the fact that the year before last a rally in my support gathered more than two thousand people. In Odessa, those people came out to the rally, not for some party, not to be against tariffs, not even against some kind of building, but because they came out to defend their values ​​and show that culture is a priority for them. Unfortunately, this is not all of Odessa, but fortunately, two thousand people came out. People have shown that they need it. This means that the time that I took away from quietly working as an artist, I have not spent in vain.

Why didn't you run for elections in ‘14? I think some parties offered you positions.

Why would I run for office in ‘14? I was offered to do that even back in ‘96. Until I took over this museum, I didn't need it. Independence was dearer to me. But when I got into it, I realized that to achieve any real result, I need to have access to control levers.

At the same time, from the age of 32, in addition to creativity, you have been engaged in managerial activities.

Not managerial — more curatorial, and organizational. The manager in me, to be honest, is so-so.
But being the top manager means leading. Doesn't it interfere with creativity?
At a certain stage, it even helped. And now I can't say that it really hinders me because, coming from the museum, I just assert myself as an artist by continuing to work. It interferes with rest. This does not interfere with creativity.

Where do you get your strength?

Well, also the classic Marxism-Leninism Marx argued that rest is a change of activities. I take strength from the change of activities.

Critics associate your work with the Paris Commune and the New Wave schools. Are there any schools being created now?

When abandoned houses appeared in Kyiv, and artists began to master them, it was not a school. It was a group of people who professed, probably, to have similar aesthetic views, and similar strategies. There were people connected with each other by personal friendship. It became a school in the process, when in this pot everyone looked closely at each other, borrowed something from one another and shared something with one another. Some things were either a reflection or polemics on what the other did.

I have never lived in the Paris Commune, I have always lived in Odessa. But I used to be stuck there for a long time — for a week or two. And we can also take into account that there was such a point as Moscow, where we went all the time, because there was no market here, and there was one already in Moscow. There was Guelman Gallery, then Regina Gallery, and other galleries appeared. For me, it was a double reason to visit Kyiv: first on the way to Moscow, and then on the way back from Moscow. I always traveled through Kyiv and always got stuck for a long time there, always keeping my finger on the pulse of what my friends who lived here were doing. But I've always been a little different. I had a different idea of what was picturesque, a different attitude to texture, and different energy. Probably, in some ways, there is less irony, maybe even less irrationality, and more pathos. This is probably called metamodern now. Although, I think what the others did and has been classified as postmodernity was actually closer to what is called metamodern today than the stereotypes that they tried to impose on us: obligatory irony. In principle, irony was a tool, and we were people seeking truth.

Arsen Savadov said in an interview that the Paris Commune was the result of his most expensive painting, Cleopatra's Sorrow.

He is entitled to such approval. Indeed, the painting by Arsen Savadov and Georgy Senchenko, Cleopatra's Sorrow, was a powerful enough impulse that produced the effect of a bomb exploding. But this does not mean that everything can be reduced to this because there were other personalities and phenomena. Some things were ripening and, probably, the appearance of this "Cleopatra" somehow structured the developing processes. Therefore, I would not reduce everything to the fact that in the beginning there was "Cleopatra", but this is a work of fundamental importance for the history of Ukrainian art.

Is culture capable of rehabilitating society?

Culture can become one of the elements of rehabilitation. By itself, no.

How dangerous are politics for culture, and how dangerous is culture for politics?

I believe that culture should become a kind of element of politics, and politics should be aimed at strengthening the role of culture in society. Without culture, society turns into a herd of cattle, and this has not very happy electoral prospects. There have been two Maidans, the ongoing war, and the loss of Crimea, and the fact that the influence of destabilizing forces is growing in our country is evidence of this. Centrist forces are no longer centrist; they are in sharp conflict with each other. Instead of looking for common ground, the “distribution” of hatred towards opponents continues. This reproach can be presented to everyone: both the ruling party and the opposition.

In principle, political culture is part of culture. We’re not good at it.

Are government institutions able to help culture?

They are able to, but not on Soviet principles. Remnants of the Soviet principles of helping culture look pathetic. For example, I am a member of the commission that distributes presidential scholarships to especially outstanding artists. The size of this presidential scholarship is $100 per month. This is a handout, this discredits the institution of the presidency. They call it helping the poor. The Presidential scholarship — there should be not 200, but 10, and they should be at least $2,000 a month, not $100. This will mark the fact that, indeed, the state and the president care and create conditions for the life of prominent figures of culture. We should not give everyone $100, starting from the master of working the grapevine and ending with the composer who writes symphonies or the people's artist of Ukraine. Moreover, all this is put forward by creative unions. They are rudiments, and it is high time to abolish them. It is high time to abolish the titles of People's Artist and Honored One. But the Soviet cultural machine, the mechanism for managing culture, and some privileges have not yet been dismantled. It all lost its meaning long ago.

Won’t the artist be spoiled by the $2,000 per month funding — even if he's very talented.

You know, I earn more.

I have no doubt, but you are not subsidized.

If I am 80 years old and I, for example, go blind or break my arm — I do not know how to do anything else, except how to earn my living by my labor. If I am physically unable to do this, then I will have to crawl out into the street: "Got any bread for the former artist?"

You are also a very literary person. Will the modern generation’s fragmented perception, focusing human attention on two or three-minute video content, lead to the popularization of social networks, particularly TikTok?

This is a mystery to me, I have not yet mastered it.

The social network with the largest audience, consisting of short videos, and open memes. That is, a meme is more often a still image…

You know, I will probably die without mastering TikTok. I don't quite understand why I need this. Even Instagram is not really my genre. Because Facebook, even though it is wildly politicized and fucked up by trolls, still sometimes involves some kind of exchange of views and some kind of dialogue — something that is lacking in reality. 

Will it somehow influence art?


Not only TikTok. Digitalization.

Digitalization affects it. How TikTok will influence it, I do not know.

Is performance art related to technology such as cinema and photography?

Performance art appeared after photography, but before cinema. Rather, after the cinema, but it was still not the cinema we know. It was a very conditional silent movie, very little like what we call cinema today.

That is, art does not react much to this?

Art reacts to everything. Of course, art reacts to technical progress, changes in social relations, and customer’s changes. Its functions are changing. The function of a bison painted in a cave, the function of depicting some Greek god, the function of an icon, the function of a Dutch still life or portrait, or the function of a romantic painting are completely different functions.

What functions can be distinguished in art now?

First of all, it is the production of the image and the statement of the artist. But today there is no such thing that art is this, this and that — and nothing else. Still, there are many different strategies, unlike 200 years ago. And it is even in contrast to what was 100 years ago, when there were only a few strategies: someone was a Cubist, someone was a Dadaist, someone was an abstractionist, someone developed some kind of post-impressionistic line, and someone was already on the verge of surrealism. Or there was metaphysics, and constructivism. And that's all.

Today there are so many techniques, so many approaches, and so many motivations that it is impossible to talk about art as a whole. What is in common between a person who meditatively paints a still life from nature and a person who works provocatively with reality? And between this — a huge range of different kinds of strategies, approaches to art, and understandings of art. The specificity of our time is that there is too much of it. And the media are completely different: there are videos and online channels. Traditions are being eroded; stable stereotypes are being eroded.

Is there a vector in all this diversity? How can we tell good from bad?

I don’t know myself sometimes. Sometimes I know.

Intuitively? Or are there any laws?

Well, what kind of laws can there be in a space that is focused on the constant refutation of its own boundaries? To break its own laws? Well, are there laws breaking laws?

Intuition doesn't always work either. This is most likely dedicated intuition, multiplied by understanding and by getting to know the context.

And multiplied by intelligence, probably.

You know, there are not such very intellectual artists or critics, and critics are sometimes even less intellectual than artists. They can assimilate a certain paradigm, consider it salutary and fiercely fight for their righteousness, and prove it.

And we have forgotten: there is political correctness, there is feminism, there is a movement of Black Lives Matter, there are a lot of interesting things.

Are ordinary people able to understand art without the medium of criticism and art critics?

It depends on what level, what kind of art and how much they are immersed in it. Let's say a person who starts collecting art often starts collecting very bad art. And then time passes, and he or she suddenly realizes that he or she probably bought that thing in vain, but this one is better, and this other one is generally cool.

In music, to be “well-listened” is important, or in visual art or cinema to be “well-watched”. The more you've seen, the more you are immersed, the more you add up and start to work some internal personal criteria.

There is a widespread belief that there is no quality criticism in literature. In art history, how are things going with this?

There is very little in art history. There is of course, but not enough. Our tradition of generating any utterance is stronger than the tradition of comprehending it.

You are from Odessa. How much does one’s place of birth affect a person's identity?

In the case of Odessa, it does. Odessa is still a city, and at least during my childhood, it was a fairly integral architectural ensemble. The entire length of the 19th century was represented, and lots of authentic details have been preserved: windows, doors, roofs, and gates.

Of course, a person is brought up by their environment, including their architectural environment. In the case of downtown, this is everything. In the case of some residential areas, I think that the consciousness of people who grew up in the Odessa residential area, in Donetsk and even in Lviv is much more unified. The lifestyle is set by these architectural boxes. There is the lack of any infrastructure other than meeting basic needs, the lack of a friendly environment and a visually attractive environment in which you just want to spend time, and a certain class dominance of not very wealthy people, which affects the quality of public catering, for example, on the forms of leisure activities.

In the center of Odessa, of course, a historical veil has been preserved, and a kind of memory of pre-revolutionary standards, which, in turn, were by the standards of the Russian Empire. It was one of the most European-style cities.

Today we see, unfortunately, that Odessa is being destroyed, and the city is disfigured. On the one hand, it is disfigured by the greed of the nouveau riche developers who kill it and
put up huge skyscrapers where they are not necessary. On the other hand, this is the lumpenization of the population, as well as their ethics and aesthetics. And it is considered normal to have a chicken coop on some facade of the house, and sheathe it with Turkish clapboard. I would probably undergo physical punishment for that sort of thing. I’d at least have a prison sentence. 

Along with the disorder that is taking place in the city, there is also a parallel myth, which comes from the Soviet Union, that Odessa …

I have just spoken not only about Odessa. The same applies to both Kyiv and Lviv. In Lviv it is less, in Kyiv — everything is the same. It is enough to drive along Antonovich street, in the center, to see all this.

... there was a similar myth in Donetsk and in Kharkiv. In Donetsk it was "Donetsk feeds all of Ukraine; in Odessa — Odessa-mother is a self-sufficient unit, which is more Russian than Ukrainian; in Kharkiv — this is also a story about a Russian city, about the first capital. Why do these myths persist so long? By what means? Is it possible to destroy them, and is it worth it?

Regional consciousness and regional memory are ineradicable. A person who lives in a place wants to believe that this place is unique. Another thing is that the “Odessa myth” in the form in which it exists today is counterproductive.

I arrived at the airport — it says "Odessa-mom".

Let's not touch it. First, this is a term from the criminal argo. Secondly, as to the fact that it was a Russian city, it did not immediately become so. When Pushkin arrived in Odessa in the 1920s, he complained that Russian newspapers and magazines could not be found in the city. The city did not speak Russian, the city spoke the languages ​​of the Mediterranean peoples: Italian, French, and Greek. And only after the abolition of the port-franco, in the second half of the 19th century, the city was Russified for some time, but some ethnic groups still remained. After the revolution, the city became largely Jewish — almost 40% of the population was Jews. During the war, a huge number of Jews were killed, hundreds of thousands, in Odessa itself and around it. After emigration, the city was filled with people from the region.

On the other hand, indeed, the language of culture for some time in Odessa was Russian. Jews who moved from small towns, and Ukrainians who moved from villages, perceived Russian as the language of culture and the language of power. It was like that for a while and this gave rise to many disgusting Ukrainian-phobic stereotypes. In principle, this began back in the ‘30s — the curtailment of the teaching of national languages. And the ridicule began.

Before this, Odessa, until the beginning of the ‘30s, was successfully Ukrainianized under the leadership of the Communist Party, somewhere between ‘20 and ‘33. For more than 10 years there has been effective Ukrainization.

The fact is that the Odessa myth is also built largely on this operetta accuracy, on humor, and at one time it was probably a good decision for Odessa. This was sold to our ideological bosses both in Kyiv and in Moscow: this is our Odessa flavor, do not touch it, we make jokes here. As Georgians wear caps and Uzbeks wear skullcaps, here we are joking and have humor.

Odessa at one time responded to this ideological pressure with jokes. But then this humor became unfunny, strained, and archaic. The myth about the exclusivity of Odessa and its self-sufficiency prevents Odessa from creating its provinciality. It is much more provincial in the context of today than Odessa in the ‘80s.

The Port and Union?

Yes, the port meant a lot, of course, because it was a place of communication. There were tourists, foreigners, and sailors who brought some things and performed illegal trade. The port revived Odessa. Today the port is practically dead. Well, it is transporting goods. This is not quite the port it was. There are not all these cruises. Ithas practically lost its recreational function.

Why do people like simple stories? We spoke with you about the Odessa myth and that it played out its function, but remained all the same. Why do people love this simplicity?

Again, you are asking what the role of culture can be. In all countries, probably, there is a criminal chanson. Nowhere does it play such a role in musical culture as in the post-Soviet space. Of course, in the USSR, humanitarian education was very ideological and rejected. Instead of being built on things that are really necessary for a person, it was rejected simply because of its falsity: for example, Gorky's novel Mother or Fadeev's novel Young Guard. Among the general flow of such an engaged text, even some powerful things that we went through in the school curriculum were lost.

During this time, there has been a catastrophic devaluation of humanitarian values.

Is the humanitarian era ending? It transforms into a new era, with conventionally, digitalization, and even some formality. This is mathematic. Although the language itself is also formulaic.

I don't think the humanitarian era is ending. On the contrary, maybe, in some form adapted for the average person, some things that were the lot of gourmets become objects of mass consumption. Sometimes it democratizes to the detriment of depth, yes.

Translated from Russian by Kateryna Kazimirova 

Short profile

Oleksander Roytburd is an artist, curator, one of the most expensive contemporary artists in Ukraine. The works of Oleksander Roytburd are kept in many museums, particularly in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Co-founder of the New Art Association, director of the Odessa Art Museum.