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Decoration Over Destruction

Artist Artem Filatov on wooden architecture and the transformative street art scene of Nizhny Novgorod.

Wooden architecture in Russia is losing its value in the eyes of the majority of the population. While citizens forsake their wooden homes, cities are trading in wooden facades for concrete and glass. Against this backdrop, artists in Nizhny Novgorod are reinterpreting and recording their city's vanishing complexion. The abundance of semi-derelict wooden houses has engendered a blossoming street art scene intent on decorating, rather than destroying, the cityscape.

Artem Filatov is one of the movement’s main activists and the organizer of the “New City: Ancient” street art festival. The festival is facilitating collaboration between contemporary artists and the inhabitants of old houses. They are uniting in order to put their homes on the map for one last time before the wooden walls fade into obscurity, dismantled ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“Untitled” (2014) by Andrey Druzhaev. Photo by Ivan Erofeev

IG: What does wooden architecture represent in modern cities made of glass and concrete? What do these semi-derelict buildings characterize and why have they become the preferred canvas for street artists?

AF: To some people, these wooden buildings are memorials to the architecture of the past; for others, they are historical artifacts; others see them as examples of a certain harmony and craftsmanship; and others enjoy contemplating the humble process of decay and disintegration. It would be foolish to suggest that the new artwork on these houses should remain forever. That is the nature of art in the city – it might be broken up, edited, painted over, removed completely or, just maybe, preserved; it just depends on what kind of community lives around it.

“Untitled” (2014) by Andrey Druzhaev. Photo by Andrey Druzhaev

IG: And what kind of people live here, and how do they react to the walls of their houses’ being treated as canvases? Street artists are typically classified by city inhabitants as vandals.

AF: Street artists in Nizhny Novgorod want to make friends with the citizens and start a dialogue. This is very much a Nizhny trait: Street art here is looking not for conflict with its surroundings but for points of contact, for common ground. It is something of an experiment, but a successful one: the city has grown very loyal toward its street artists. There are so many large works on historic buildings in Nizhny because artists have communicated well with the residents, who in turn appreciate and stand up for the artists’ endeavors.

We even collaborate with the public by collecting requests from the residents of historic buildings. Based on these requests, we form a proposal for the artists taking part in “New City: Ancient,” so they can create something during the festival. It’s a fundamentally different format from the other street art festivals in Russia where one day you walk up to a nine-story block of flats and see a vast portrait of Zhukov and you have no idea where it came from. We’re drawing attention to the need for public art in the true sense. The main question is whether art should exist on the streets at all. Many locals have the attitude: “Go ahead and make your crap in galleries and museums, but leave my house alone!”

Left: “Campfire” (2014) by Andrey Olenev and Fedor Mahlauk. Right: “Reed” (2013) by Artem Filatov, Vladimir Chernyshev.

IG: What is your artistic process in terms of methods and goals? How do you or other artists select a house, for example?

AF: Proactive residents send us requests. They often have personal tales, legends, and backstories of how they have defended their home. So it becomes a kind of socio-cultural art project in which the artist creates an installation with its own social subtext. We tell the story of the house, and in some sense we paint it back onto the map of the city. People come to see it and take photos; the planning companies and local government take notice of it as if for the first time. In essence, it’s a way of raising the preservation issue. But we aren’t defending the houses with pitchforks or anything. We aren’t revolutionaries. We’re part of an art project that offers some form of expression.

Street art here is not some alien subculture, it’s a totally natural and organic phenomenon. Sometimes as many as 80 people, of all ages, participate in tours of street art. Two years ago, we made an online map of all the street art installations in the city, with information about their various artists. Many different communities used the resource – people intrigued by the genre, or by the future of the city and its historic buildings. What we have in Nizhny is unique for Russia. It’s bigger than street art – it’s the creation of truly “public art.”

“Lace of Memories” (2015) by Timofey Radya and Stas Dobry. Bottom right: “Bulletinboard”(2016) by Artem Filatov

IG: Can you give examples of work that is representative of local art in terms of concept, aesthetics, and collaboration with the public?

AF: “Lace of Memories” was the central work at last year’s “New City: Ancient” festival. The artists Timofey Radya (Ekaterinburg) and Stas Dobry (Moscow) took contextual research to a new level by reading a book about the rich history of the house, written by its occupants. The daughter of the architect, Tatyana Sergeyevna Rukavishnikova-Novikova still lives there. She and her family – descendants of the Decembrist Iosif Podzhio – were delighted to share their memories of their home and take part in the project. It was a thoroughly joyful collaboration.

In their subsequent piece, the artists covered the house exterior with murals of lace napkins, reminding passers-by of their grandparents. The piece was also a reference to Saint Augustine of Hippo’s great work “Confessions,” in which he makes a treatise on the composition of human memory. The artists chose not to name the piece, but the locals named it “Lace of Memories,” saying that Augustine’s work itself resembles this kind of lace.

“Buckets” (2016) by Andrey Olenev.

“Buckets” was installed at the side of a burned house. Andrey Olenev already has a series of works involving buckets, which he hangs up and works with in different ways. One person who saw this wrote to us: “It’s a pity these buckets weren't full of water when the house was burning.” It’s a typical Olenev piece. You feel that he is always caught between the technical training he received at art school and his naturally more informal, less conservative painting style, where he is led by the brush and relinquishes control.

IG: How is the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup changing the Nizhny architectural landscape, and how should artists respond?

AF: Vladimir Chernyshev’s work “Castle” appeared last year on Plotnichny Lane, one of many streets in Nizhny still entirely composed of stone and wooden farmhouses. The lane is still very lively, thanks in part to a gang of cats, fed and loved by the locals. Sadly, the cats and their benefactors will be displaced prior to the 2018 World Cup and resettled in other housing. The lane will be completely transformed. Chernyshev’s “Castle” is not only an assembly of symbols with personal significance for the artist, but also an image of indestructible strength that, when it begins to disintegrate, will become a ghostly apparition.

“Castle” (2014) by Vladimir Chernyshev. Photo by Ivan Erofeev.

IG: Every local art movement shares something in terms of style or content. Art here is dominated by images of nature and mystical figures. Are there any other traditions unique to Nizhny?

AF: One of the most distinctive local practices is to find small niches in the facades of buildings and fit miniature works into the predetermined shape. This all began when Andrey Olenev and Fedor Mahlauk started hanging tiny pictures on protruding nails around town. They called the project “Outdoors: The Open-Air Gallery.” Of course, many of the works were stolen, but some, like “Campfire,” have survived. I like that the scene depicted wasn’t dreamed up. Those artists are real wanderers – they’ve made all kinds of journeys in their time: hitchhiking, rafting, walking. That kind of nomadic spirit and love of the open country is symptomatic of Nizhny artists in general.

IG: What interests you most as a Nizhny artist? What issues do you try to reflect in your pieces?

AF: The internet, we tend to think, provides us with constant communication and remote participation. But in reality, the digital world has little to do with human life and the internet’s supposed openness and transparency is an illusion. I decided to make an unofficial monument to social dialogue and erected the work “Bulletinboard.” A device that enabled long-distance communication between people and communities back in the Middle Ages, noticeboards would advertise anything from a bounty on the head of a criminal, to a cow for sale. I thought about putting my noticeboard close to the road, to encourage people to start using it right away (it looked like a genuine noticeboard, old and fretted with metal brackets); but eventually I put it further away, so that only people who really wanted to use it would do so. I also put up some fake old notices, so that people wouldn’t think they were making the first step.

“Kilometer Zero” (2016) by Artem Filatov.

My installation “Kilometer Zero” is an unofficial monument to the sign traditionally used to show travelers, tradesmen, and postmen where the city center began and ended – although in smaller towns, this role was usually played by the main post office. The image also symbolizes the graves of Old Believers, with their iconic roofs. Zero is where things begin and end. It is the point of oblivion.