This issue of V–A–C Sreda online magazine publishes a text by the art critic Sergey Fofanov dedicated to the artist and photographer Sergey Sapozhnikov. Drawing parallels with the British writer George Orwell and the Austrian art historian Hans Sedlmayr, the author analyses various aspects of Sapozhnikov’s artistic method and worldview, which continue the Romantic tradition in contemporary art through a complex combination of the “archaic” and the “modern.”
House and Garden, a new project by Sergey Sapozhnikov, will be presented at GES-2 House of Culture on June 8, The multimedia exhibition, which combines visual images with music and theatre, will continue until September 17, 2023.
At the end of the 1940s, in 1948 to be exact, two major texts were published, the authors of which attempted to analyse the reasons behind the global catastrophe that had, in essence, obliterated the culture and world order of the Old World (Abendland). One of these texts was George Orwell’s famous anti-utopia 1984, the other was a work by the classic of Viennese art history Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (Verlust der Mitte). Both works were instant bestsellers, but if Orwell’s work—which, regrettably, has yet to lose its relevance—went on to become the property of mass culture, then the work of the Austrian academic was soon subjected to merciless criticism.
At the end of the 1930s, Sedlmayr actively participated in the politicised German art historical press as a denouncer of “degenerate” art (modern art). His articles from this period were also not lacking in accusations against “cosmopolitans” who, in the author’s opinion, were striving to destroy world harmony and establish a new world order. Sedlmayr’s great triumph, however, would come with the The Lost Centre, which was published in Austria three years after the end of the Second World War and became an important manifesto for conservative European thinkers. The revelation of the Austrian historian’s collaboration with the Nazi regime, however, along with the evidence of his NSDAP membership, would force many intellectuals to alter their relationship to his works. Today, Sedlmayr’s works are typically seen as clear examples of a bizarre and dangerous anachronism.
Despite Orwell’s prophecies, the coming of 1984 brought about no catastrophic consequences. On the contrary, the country that the British author had included in his novel under the name “Oceania” was on the threshold of great changes and preparing for perestroika. Also in 1984, the once renowned professor Hans Sedlmayr died in Salzburg. His passing coincided with the conclusion of a significant project of classical art history that opened new perspectives for the modern study of art. And, at last, also in 1984, in one of the cities of Orwell’s imaginary Oceania, the artist Sergey Sapozhnikov was born.
One might wonder what a British writer and journalist, a conservative Austrian art historian, and a contemporary artist from Rostov-on-Don could have in common. Yet a particular connection exists, and it is founded on their complex combination of the archaic and the modern—on the “denial,” “loss,” and “acquisition” of the centre, as well as on the meaning each them of lent—or lend, in the case of Sapozhnikov—to the concept.
The Big Brother of Orwell’s anti-utopia is the watching centre of the panopticon. The conclusion Orwell comes to in his novel is deeply depressing—equality between people is unattainable, social utopia is not just a dangerous illusion but the root cause of dictatorship. The definition of the centre, symmetry, and submission to a particular order sicken Orwell. He denies the centre—in his conception, as in those of all other modernists, it is hostile to everything living, and, most importantly, hostile to the freely creative human spirit.
In the case of Sedlmayr, things are far more complicated. By “lost centre” Sedlmayr meant the end of a grandiose civilisational project, founded on the traditions of Antiquity and Christian culture. The great French Revolution and the series of scientific discoveries that shook world at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries destroyed the familiar map of the world and placed the existence of God under doubt. The ensuing loss of faith, according to Sedlmayr, was also the loss of the centre, which, in turn, brought about the death of classical art—in losing faith, art also lost its highest purpose, the reproduction of holy images. And, following the death of the world of Christian culture, Sedlmayr proclaimed the onset of a new epoch of western art, which he termed the epoch of modern art.
As it happens, it was exactly where this odious art historian placed the negative symbol, lamenting the death of the old, the “dusk,” “degeneration,” and “decline,” that the new generation of thinkers and artists that had come to replace him declared the birth of a new world yet to unveil itself in the future. The fundamental difference of this new world from the preceding one lay in its existence in a state of constant movement, in the fact that its centre was not a static one. The main condition of this new world’s existence was the constant movement of the centre, in transformation and synthesis.
In Sedlmayr’s conception, the figure standing at the centre of the universe had been God, and art had been no more than one of the forms for the manifestation of divine revelation and divine spirit. In its new conditions, art, replacing religion, set the figure of the artist-creator at the centre of the universe. Ridding himself of the need to follow a concrete political agenda, unfastening himself from archaic views of tradition, of dogmas and canons, the artist attained true creative freedom and proposed his own model of the universe, at the centre of which he stood himself.
Using this paradigm of modern times, Sergey Sapozhnikov invites us to look at the world around us through the eyes of a modern Romantic, of an artist who is both the successor and destroyer of classical art.
The philosophical investigations underlying The Lost Centre were made on the eve of the Second World War, in a country poisoned by fascist ideology and by spreading delusional, quasi-scientific theories. There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that Sedlmayr, like many Nazi cultural ideologists of the period, often used terminology borrowed from various fields of science and medicine. Indeed, a subheading of his work terms the art of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a “symptom of the era.” In later observations about the “progress of the disease,” which, in his understanding, manifested itself in the evolution of modernist practices in culture, Sedlmayr, like a doctor, makes the diagnosis of a “diseased time.” Yet, despite his description of the symptoms of modern art and his making of diagnoses, the author seems not to have noticed that his text was itself a clear example of the diseased society of which Sedlmayr was a part.
Underlying the philosophical scientism of The Lost Centre was a distorted understanding of the natural philosophy professed by the German Romantics. Replacing the Enlightenment, Romanticism had called into question scientific approaches to the world associated with empirical experience, proposing instead theories of natural philosophy founded on irrational, intuitive human experience. The Romantics held that the universe could be opened to the individual only through a prolonged process of contemplation and reflection, which would ultimately lead to the disembodiment of the self and its merging with nature.
Sapozhnikov, as a direct descendant of the Romantic tradition in contemporary art, sets before himself the perfectly understandable and ambitious task of reconsidering the natural philosophy of the Romantics, taking into account all the features of today’s times. So, for example, while studying at the Psychology Faculty of Rostov State University, Sapozhnikov researched the emotional influence of modern and classical art on human consciousness.
It is an irony of fate that, like Seldmayr, Sapozhnikov was to live and create in “diseased times.” Yet unlike the situation in the 1930s and 1940s, when German society was poisoned by inhuman ideology, Sergey Sapozhnikov’s photographs were created in a period of pandemic, when nearly all inhabitants of the planet found themselves quarantined. The pictures in this exhibition are nothing other than a meticulously crafted history of the malady of 2020.
A pandemic is a tragedy of a universal scale, comparable to a natural disaster, to a war. This said, a pandemic is also a unique existential experience and serious challenge to the creative character. In the conditions of a pandemic, a person finds themselves quarantined, alone with themselves, they are effectively deprived of freedom and become a prisoner in captivity. This metaphor for isolation from the rest of the world and restriction of freedom is acutely appropriate to Russia, with its large number of penitentiaries and the difficult legacy of labour camps of the Stalin era.
However, in such conditions, the artist has an important advantage: being the centre, able to alter their position depending on circumstance, they can change the negative vector into a positive one, use the situation they are presented with as a trigger to creativity. Finding themselves in an extreme situation, the artist can always find salvation in the parallel reality of his inner world. This ability was one of the great discoveries of the Romantic era.
A conscious slowing down of the rhythm of life and a lowering of the artistic metabolism lead the artist into a state of hibernation, or, more precisely, into a state of half-sleep, given that a part of their consciousness remains awake and daydreams. In this somnambulic state, the artist fixes their attention on unobvious things, revealing the prosaic, everyday beauty within them. Turning their gaze to the interior of their room, they begin to notice unimportant details that had previously evaded them. Broadened perspective in such a situation is an expression of circular looking—a slow and attentive scanning of surrounding reality.
Finding himself within four walls, Sapozhnikov was able to look at himself anew, to reveal certain previously unseen facets of his essence through the objects that surrounded him. As Sergey himself put it, for him, at the beginning, the quarantine was a time of emotional rest, of concentration, of absolute calm. The slowing down of the natural course of things helped him structure his consciousness and reconsider many things. Finding himself in full isolation for a month and a half, he studied his surroundings closely: sculptural volumes, built furniture, and other interior objects, the slow movement of sunlight across a room over the course of a day. As Sergey himself admits, he sought to create a visual embodiment of white noise—“maximally boring photographs”—similar in spirit to the well-known Sugimoto series depicting the white cinema screens and empty auditoriums of old cinemas. In his obsessively meticulous description of the most everyday things, of seemingly needless details, Sapozhnikov is akin to other singers of the great prose of life: Joyce and Proust. Without going beyond the bounds of typical Soviet halabuda (the artist’s own expression), Sapozhnikov completes a journey no inferior in its richness to the wanderings of the legendary Odysseus.
From the time of Romanticism, notions of the value of the “I” of an independent individual have been inextricably linked with the objects that surround that “I.” This, in fact, is why the Romantic era saw the flourishing of the so-called “chamber genre.” Representations of living rooms, workshops, and studies became expressions of the hidden life of the human soul. Sapozhnikov places the viewer in the homely atmosphere of his dwelling and unveils his inner world to them. Indeed, behind this image of a living space lies the true face of its inhabitant, and the interior thus becomes a symbolic self-portrait of the artist.
True art, like philosophy, is a constant questioning, an uninterrupted dialogue of the artist with their double, with their inner essence. Art in this case becomes a means of self-knowledge. The double openness—outward and inward—that is characteristic of the lyrical hero of the artist is defined by the concept of duality. At the border of reality and fantasy, the artist becomes a guide, drawing the viewer along with them on journeys between these worlds.
Alongside his clear fixation of furnishings (objective reality) and his intention of creating “maximally boring photographs,” Sapozhnikov develops a new strategy that allows him to creatively transform his living space. Using all possible colour filters and artificial sources of light, Sapozhnikov attains an effect of estrangement from surrounding reality. Through transformation of the colour spectrum—colour/light-painting—Sapozhnikov transforms the interior of his apartment, turning familiar things into strange, surrealist objects. The exposure of unexpected perspectives does not only reveal new meanings, but allows Sapozhnikov to overcome the notorious limitation of the fourth wall. The illusory, fantastic space the photographer immerses us in corresponds with the hidden worlds of the Romantics, towards which the heroes of their literary texts, paintings, and musical compositions strove.
One of the main postulates of Romanticism held that art is the path to the attainment of freedom—a means of stepping beyond the bounds of reality towards the transcendent and eternal, towards that which cannot be attained through empirical logic. And, of course, Sapozhnikov’s visionary experiment in this project is an expression of this same Romantic intention.
Music for the Romantics was a unifying principle and the highest purpose of the creative impulse—for them, the path to world harmony was to be found running through music. In his essay, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, one of the first professional music critics and a fine composer, described his attitude to music in the following terms: music “is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only genuinely romantic one—for its sole subject is the infinite.”
During the time of his forced imprisonment, as a result of the pandemic, Sergey Sapozhnikov sought solace in music. A passionate admirer of professional recordings and high-quality sound, Sapozhnikov returned to compositions by Scott Walker, Richard Barbieri, and Niels Frahm, which in turn inspired him to create the photographic series that forms part of the present House and Garden project.
Image, sound, and dance go hand in hand through all of Sapozhnikov’s works—he is one of the few Russian artists who make music an integral part of their practice. And this is not about sound accompaniment or the vulgar use of pop-classic motifs for the sake of “beautifying the beautiful” but rather about the role of music in the complex perception of both individual works and the exhibition space itself. At Sapozhnikov’s request, the composer Alexey Khevelev has written music especially for the project, designed to emphasise and reveal the author’s intention not just through visual images in the exhibition photographs and choreography but through sound.
Hearth and home—das Heim. Yet another Romantic category, one that reveals the nature of longing for one’s native land, for loved ones, for memories of the past related to parental homes. To the question “Where are we going?”, the hero of Novalis’s novel, the wandering artist Heinrich von Ofterdingen, answers “All roads lead home.”
Sapozhnikov never did part with his native Rostov-on-Don: he continues to live there in a ten-storied building, in the modest apartment that he inherited from his parents. This bond makes the idea of leaving one he cannot countenance.
The pandemic proved a fateful event for many, making it necessary to reconsider the essence and purpose of their places of residence. Compliance with strict rules of self-isolation literally riveted people to their homes. At the same time, the rapid spread of the epidemic at once tore many of us away from our families and made visiting our native lands impossible.
However, these restrictions, related to the pandemic, were of an artificial character. History, however, holds examples of more voluntary forms of isolation—inner emigration or the creation of alternative models of the universe. This is precisely what Sapozhnikov began to occupy himself with during the pandemic. Not leaving his home, he set off on a fascinating journey through the backstreets of his fantastic worlds. Each day, the artist ascended to the very top floor of his building, the tenth, from his apartment, situated on the third. These daily ascents inspired him to create a series of photographs featuring the thresholds, stairwells, and spans of typical Soviet apartment buildings. And, in the end, at the behest of the artist, these routine ascents and descents up and down stairs were transformed into a theatrical production with the participation of actors and musicians.
Since time immemorial, stairs have been considered the embodiment of the transitional states of the human soul. They are sacred states, in which the private encounters the communal. In this situation, the artist acts as an intermediary between these two paradigms, his art becoming a means of communication with surrounding reality.
Threshold are zones of discomfort, spaces of aposiopesis, territories that usually go unnoticed as people try to slip into the protected, miniature worlds of their apartments as swiftly as possible, from which, fenced off from the dangerous and disturbing transitional space outside by a reliable door with a peep-hole, they observe what goes on there. Often, the inhabitants of an apartment building never rise above the floor on which they live—this mystical fear of unknown worlds is present in our consciousness from early childhood and is a manifestation of the us and them dichotomy. To rise means to literally take a step beyond the bounds of subconscious limitations, to overcome one’s own deep fears and leave one’s comfort zone—that is, to commit a certain act that contains the intention to create.
It goes without saying that thresholds are not living spaces, but they nevertheless retain the function of spaces for life and vividly embody the condition in which modern society finds itself. The threshold is an important communicative space, and a shelter for outsiders and marginals: from schoolchildren to vocational college students, who gather there after or instead of classes, exchanging libellous inscriptions and other indecent muralisms, to drunks and the homeless, for whom thresholds and stairwells serve not just as shelters but as the seats of feasting libations.
Sapozhnikov was able to observe this anti-philistine existence that no one would ever let pass the threshold of their apartment every day, ascending and descending the stairs. The taking of drink began from the very early morning, and window sills became the scenes of disputes and symposiums.
The repellent, cheap faded paint used in the majority thresholds is no different to that typically used to paint the walls of other public institutions: prisons, polyclinics, kindergartens, schools, barracks, public toilets, and morgues. The only place of light, the single symbol of hope in this joyless world is the window, through the dull glass of which the contours of a promised land of freedom loom indistinctly. It is for this reason that the window sills of stairwells, like sacrificial altars, are decorated with flowers other offerings. Cigarette butts, empty bottles, and other forms of waste mix with stunted flowers growing in plastic planters and misshapen makeshift pots: through them, soft-hearted residents fence themselves off from the real world. The bizarre emblematic still lifes of window-sill decorations are a metaphor of the impermanence of all things and an instance of the struggle of two natural forces: creative and destructive chaos.
An insatiable craving for beauty and embellishment, an underlying need for entertainment and festivities—all of this echoes the atmosphere of feast in time of plague in which our society finds itself today.
In Sapozhnikov’s photographs, the window frame repeats the frame of the camera. Through this simple optical device, a kind of artistic arrangement, Sapozhnikov doubles the symbolic perspective, attaining a confrontation of the external, set in the exterior, with the inner, the interior, the world of private experiences. And so, without venturing from home, Sapozhnikov demonstrates to us the unending depths of his own das Heim.
No Romantic can exist without nature. Eternal and sacred nature is the foundation of all the natural philosophy of Romanticism. Nature is a flight from oneself and from the hardships of the world—and yet, at the same time, it is also a finding of oneself, a finding of paradise on earth. Representations and descriptions of forests, fields, and ocean scenes in the works of the painters, poets, and composers of the Romantic era are, in fact, nothing other that a search for their own “I.” The higher purpose of the Romantic artist was the attainment of absolute, ringing harmony with nature, of merging with it in a single moment. “Landscapes of the soul” (Selenlandschaften)—this was what K. D. Friedrich called his philosophical landscapes, in which the figure of a solitary wanderer expresses the universal yearning for harmony with nature and the hopeless homelessness that arises from the recognition of one’s solitariness and separateness from the divine universe.
The Romantic soul is melancholy without nature, without nature it cannot develop, feel, create. In order to free himself from domestic confinement and the ether of his fantasies, Sapozhnikov decided on a desperate act. For the short period of the pandemic, Sapozhnikov got a dog, which allowed him to take a walk around his building three times a day without violating strict quarantine regulations. Distance restrictions required that he remain within the bounds of his micro-neighbourhood, and the courtyard and small square located nearby became the usual scene of his daily walks. Sapozhnikov, however, did not just walk a dog—every time he went out, he also took a camera. And so, thanks to his quick wit, the series of photographs dedicated to the Garden appeared. These walks, in Sapozhnikov’s words, proved a priceless experience for him, they allowed him to recognise the beauty nearby that typically goes unnoticed.
Such an ordinary action—a walk with a domesticated animal through the square of a micro-district—acquires its own hidden meaning in the mind of the artist and of the art-historian fantasiser. Since ancient times, dogs have been considered psychopomps, the guides of souls as they travel to the kingdom of the dead. And any artificial garden, made by man on the sinful earth, is nothing other than a reminder of the golden era of mankind and the heavenly pastures. It was over the course of garden walks and conversations that Platonic philosophy was born. And of course, the walks of Sapozhnikov were also wondering wanderings, not pure vision in itself, but rather captured fragments of memories and inner experiences. The photographer entered into dialogue with himself, he learned to see the world anew, to take pleasure from simple things. The slowed-down flow of time brought him closer to eternity. Walks through a childhood square are walks through the hidden backstreets of one’s own character and, in this sense, the garden becomes a metaphor for the inner essence of the artist, a landscape of his soul.
Stopped time and artificially created reality, a consequence of the quarantine, forced the Rostovite Sapozhnikov to remember his childhood once more. During the time of the pandemic, he found himself cut off from the world, in his parental home, in the apartment where he had grown up, in the courtyard, where he had played in childhood and first graffitied in adolescence, in the square, where he had once walked as a child. What seems at first a touching feeling of nostalgia soon grows tiring: for the first minutes, hours, for the first days or two, we feel the joy of recognition, but, gradually, this initial joy turns to disappointment and apathy. And it is not just the feeling of the impermanence of all things that is to blame, but an elemental irritation at obsessive memories. The more they accumulate, the more one wishes to be rid of them as of an unneeded ballast, in order to move somewhere further on.
But this ordinary pinching nostalgia for childhood, for socks, for toys, and pranks has nothing to do with the image of childhood that was presented to the Romantics.
Until the Romantic era, childhood was considered a period that it was necessary to overcome as soon as possible, in order to become a full-fledged member of society. The contribution of the Romantics lay in the discovery of the child’s own inner world, and in the definition of childhood as the most important stage of a human life. A child, in their perception, was a full-fledged personality, yet all the same a child, not a small adult. As the German painter Philipp Otto Runge described it: “Children are mysterious, they are inhabitants of unknown worlds; they have bottomless eyes, they are dedicated to many things they don’t even know about, which ordinary viewers standing in front of the painting have already forgotten, if they ever knew.”
The world of childhood attracted the Romantics, each of them sought to find their inner child. Ultimately, the image of the child was for them an emblem of the future, at once mysterious and utopian.
Through his camera, Sapozhnikov traces the changes that have taken place in him and in his perception of the world over the years. Thanks to a strange time loop that returned him to the world of his childhood, the artist was able to observe the directions in which his attention has moved, how the scale of objects that in childhood seemed to him highly important and grandiose has altered. And so the search for the lost paradise, which many associate with childhood, became yet another powerful impulse to creation.
Wine, sunlight dissolving in the air, sea blue, intoxicating aromas, great beauty, great art, Renaissance and Antiquity—all of this is Italy! All of this was the adopted homeland (Wahlheimat), or, better, the chosen homeland of Romanticism.
Italy is also a second homeland for Sapozhnikov, and this is not just because a vast number of his exhibitions have taken place there, but because, by conscious choice, Italy is the homeland of Sapozhnikov’s soul. Rostov hedonism, multiplied by Italian impressions, proves a truly incredible example of vital art. But what is an artist unable to consummate his passion for his beloved country to do? A yearning for the promised land—this is the bright sadness of Sehnsucht nach Italien that was sung by the Romantics. Like all German compound words, Sehnsucht—composed of the verbs sehnen, to yearn, and suchen, to seek—hardly lends itself to translation; it denotes an ephemeral feeling that can only be experienced. And he who has once truly felt the magic of Italy will be accompanied by a yearning for that promised land to the end of their days. The underside of Italian greatness is that all dictators of the last century have continually dreamt of creating a state similar to the Roman Empire.
Yet Sapozhnikov tore apart this cardboard cutout of imperial spirit with ease. Italy is once more gentle and delightful, naive and ironic: it has the games of Antiquity, Giro Italia bicycle races, and, in the end, that very Italian taste and Italian design. Drunk on dreams of Italy, Sapozhnikov places his bicycle on a pedestal as the highest model of eternal beauty. After all, through this bicycle, he can, if only mentally, escape his imprisonment and race on a journey to his cherished end, to his chosen homeland.
The microscope and the telescope are indispensable attributes of armchair scientists in old novels. These devices saw the boundaries of our physical vision widen—with repeated enlargement or reduction, we became able to study in detail worlds that were previously invisible to the human eye. Then came the systematisation of acquired knowledge, the splitting of the integral image of the universe into many micro- and macro-particles. Romantics condemned and often ridiculed zealous ministers of science, warning of the danger which, in their opinion, could hide behind such crude interference with the natural course of things.
Sapozhnikov, following the Romantics, blurs the boundaries between science and art and attempts to reassemble the scattered fragments of the universe. And as the unifying centre of this world is the artist himself, the illusion of attainment of universal harmony can exist only as long as he believes in his own fantasy.
Sapozhnikov deliberately does not use photographic effects—to his mind, they lead to distortion and unnecessary doubling. He strives, as he puts it, to merge with the camera, to make a new organ of perception of it and to dissolve into pure contemplation. He studies the world through the help of the most modern of today’s technologies, Phase One. He has, in addition, a number of Leica models in his arsenal. This choice was guided not just by the brand’s excellent technical capabilities, but by particular personal experiences. His amateur-photographer grandfather had a trophy Leica, while his grandmother had a Zorkiy camera, made in the image of the German Leica.
The art of life, Lebenskunst—here we have a worthy argument against Sedlmayr’s insinuations about the end of art and the disintegration of a single sacred image brought about by the abandonment of faith in divine providence. In his important essay “The Artwork of the Future” (“Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft,” 1849), Richard Wagner described the artist as a new creator whose main task lay in the creation of new models of the universe, at the foundation of which needed to be the principle of absolute synthesis, manifested in the form of a Gesamtkunstwerk.
Sapozhnikov’s project—a finished, synthetic work of art—is a Gesamtkunstwerk, uniting within itself fine arts, architecture, music, theatre production, and cinema. The realisation of this idea is fully subordinated to the will of the artist, it is he who controls the movement of the viewer through the halls and so creates the astonishing choreography of the exhibition. Sapozhnikov builds his exhibition through unexpected visual consonances, spatial ruptures, and cuts of perspective, which come together to form a bizarre labyrinth in which the visitor loses and finds themselves again.
Sapozhnikov is an artist of the present time, who works in a particular space, under particular conditions, with particular people. However, it is precisely that timeless part of his essence, the one responsible for artistic conception, that allows him to overcome all particulars and manifest an image of a transformed world in the form of a total work of art. His work underlines the important idea that only true art is able to overcome the vices of history that lead to resentment, just as life, in the end, must overcome disease, wars, and death.
Berlin/Davos, February–March 2023.