Aleksey Chizhov: Les Paradis Naturels @ Erarta Galleries

Erarta Galleries present the first solo exhibition of Russian artist Aleksey Chizhov consisting of five oil on canvas paintings. Its title ‘Les Paradis Naturels’ is given as the antipode to Charles Baudelaire’s work ‘Les Paradis Artificiels’, in which the French author discusses -amongst other- the use of opium and its side effects and the way it could help mankind reach an ‘ideal’ world. Chizhov borrows the poppy to create his own metaphors and talk about society’s dilemmas in escaping from its problems or facing them.

Chizhov’s work takes us on an express trip starting from references to ancient Greek subjects (‘Morhpeus’, 2007 and ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, 2011) clearly emphasising on the use of opium and its properties as described by Pedanius Dioscorides in his encyclopaedia on medicine, ‘De Materia Medica’ (1st century AD). The hallucinatory powers of opium create a new reality where time and space intersperse with the state of unconscious or, as the exhibition literature mentions, “a state of a dream-like consciousness”. Taking a closer look at Chizov’s paintings, we detect an emerging simulacrum of reality, a hyperreality. All works depict fantasy and dream-like worlds detached from any real emotional engagement; coincidentally enough these are some of the main opium effects. His symbolism reflects the transitional process between dimensions and the subject’s desire to experience an illusion far from the cruel reality. This becomes more evident in the two works ‘Gagarin’ (2011) and ‘Russian Dream’ (2010) heavily attached to ideologies associated with the Soviet Union, its socialist realism, as well as the cultural and social changes of the 20th century. Although the compressed metaphors of Chizhov’s work may prove challenging for the wider London audience, a closer study of his iconography and symbolism reveals a stimulating visual language worth pursuing.

Aleksey Chizhov talked to REVma -/+ about ‘Les Paradis Naturels’:

REVma -/+: Opium and its properties appear in art iconography quite frequently. How did you decide to engage this subject matter in conjunction with a particular allegorical context?
A.Ch. The poppy is a very bright and plastic image in itself. And opium is a ‘hotspot’ that shows interaction between oneself and one’s psyche, and between oneself and nature. It’s a great metaphor that leads us to the sleeping mind, to the world of illusions that we all live in. Some time ago Carl Marx claimed religion to be the opium of people, as an ideology that acts like a drug and makes your mind sleep, a sort of painkiller that lets us slip away from the hard reality. That’s the way every ideology acts, no matter if it’s communism or the capitalistic promise of consumer’s paradise. The poppies or opium in the paintings can be pointing at some kind of deception, illusion, two senses of the subject. Partly hidden ideologies and illusions are what the poppy anxiously shows in ‘Russian Dream’.

REVma -/+: Your works ‘Gagarin’ and ‘Russian Dream’ have clear references to the Soviet Union. What is your interpretation of the two works and how do you correlate their narrative with the underlying metaphor?
A.Ch.: The collapse of the USSR was the trigger that pulled reformation of cultural values. It was the process that involved the ‘eternally alive’ symbol of that time – Yuri Gagarin. As a hero of a country that doesn’t exist anymore, can he become a hero in the new country, a hero for the Russian Federation? Who was he – this icon of Soviet regime, the perfect brand of Soviet ideology or just a lucky guy from a small village who became the first man in space? During a large discussion in the mass media dedicated to 60th anniversary of his flight, it happened that these questions were very up-to-date, because they were bounded with national self-identification. My Gagarin is a response to these talks. The technique of the painting refers to Pop Art and graffiti, and this makes sense – these styles of painting were forbidden in the USSR. My painting acts as an antipode to the big and oily canvases of socialist realism, the official Soviet style for artists, where Gagarin is optimistically smiling, giving hope for the future. In my painting he doesn’t look at the viewer anymore, there is no communication. The connection is lost – he is either sleeping, dead or just showing a silent protest, as a hostage, trapped in the redistribution of Soviet cultural heritage.

‘Russian Dream’ was born from the painting of Gagarin. I wanted to make a painting dedicated to ‘Russian cosmism’, a philosophical and cultural movement that emerged in Russia in the early 20th century. It entailed a broad theory of natural philosophy, combining elements of religion and ethics, with a history and philosophy of the origin, evolution and future existence of space and humankind. It combined elements from both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions as well as from the Russian Orthodox Church. This movement involved different scientists and philosophers, from Soloviev to Vernadsky and Tsiolkovsky, who were bounded by this utopian idea of the super unity of humanity and space as the ultimate destination of man. I wanted to draw the ghosts of these scientists that are floating in cold space. But I changed my mind and decided to focus on one symbolical image of a cosmonaut. ‘Russian Dream’ can be explained from this point of view – Gagarin as a ghost, flying over the poppy field, as a ghost of a dream and national idea with a bitter taste of illusion.

REVma -/+: Having studied, worked and lived in Russia do you feel the need to exhibit your work to versatile and diverse cities worldwide such as London, and do you think that your work can easily be penetrated and accessed by non-Russian audiences?
A.Ch.: It’s a fantastic adventure to try to find out whether your art will touch the hearts of people of different culture. I think that the language of visual images is almost international, universal. Think about the feelings that people have of works by Rembrandt of Lucian Freud – it’s pretty much the same for all people that were raised within same culture of perception. So I don’t think there are unbeatable barriers. Engagement and access to a work of art depend more on one’s particular’s abilities, his cultural background, tastes, interests, and imagination. Also I try to use universal topics that are clear to all people, and use a language of painting that is settled in European visual culture.