Artist Profile - - NEWS - by Kon Gou­ri­o­tis

Arthur Apanski is an unas­sum­ing and giv­ing man. His rich Be­larus-Aus­tralian ac­cent re­flects on the hor­rors of the Soviet Union and its af­ter­math. The artist’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion, at the Wol­lon­gong Art Gallery last year, was an ex­pres­sion of cer­tainty af­ter de­cid­ing in 2006 to de­vote his time to paint­ing and sculpt­ing. ARTIST PRO­FILE spoke to him in his Coledale, NSW home.


The war in Afghanistan had a dra­matic im­pact on my life. In the Soviet school sys­tem there were com­pul­sory cour­ses called mil­i­tary prepa­ra­tions for be­gin­ners. Lessons in­cluded in­tro­duc­tion to the weapons: pis­tols, ri­fles, sub­ma­chine guns, ma­chine guns, grenades, and so on. I learnt how to take these weapons apart and use them. The last two years was spent pre­par­ing stu­dents for the army. I won a num­ber of com­pe­ti­tions be­tween schools and re­ceived a sharp­shooter’s badge. My teacher told me that he was proud to de­liver to the Soviet Army a good marks­man. That is when I re­alised that the play with pa­per tar­gets was over: I was head­ing to Afghanistan. I re­fused to join the army be­cause of the war in Afghanistan. I told the mil­i­tary of­fice, ‘I sim­ply don’t want to kill any­body or be killed.’ Next morn­ing I was picked up from my flat by uni­formed peo­ple and de­liv­ered to the Re­pub­lic Psy­chi­atric Hos­pi­tal where they sub­jected me to in­sulin shock ther­apy for three months. I was given the di­ag­no­sis of schizophre­nia and was dis­charged from the hos­pi­tal. For about a year I found it dif­fi­cult to speak. I was put on the full dis­abil­ity pen­sion. If I was an or­di­nary kid, I would be thrown into gaol for a cou­ple of years. But I was the grand­son of Joseph Kaz­imirovich Apanski, a hero of the Great Oc­to­ber So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion 1917, Deputy Chair­man of Spe­cial Com­mit­tee of Rus­sia and Western Area of Soviet Union. To pro­nounce the grand­son of a great revo­lu­tion­ary as a dis­si­dent of the Soviet Union was not good for the im­age of the Com­mu­nist Party. To make me sick and in­sane, that’s fine.

What did it mean to you af­ter the Ber­lin Wall came down in 1989?

Glas­nost, per­e­stroika, sur­real, beau­ti­ful, full of hope-times. War in Afghanistan was over. State news was like the BBC ‘Voice of Free­dom’. Every day some un­be­liev­able stuff would pop up. Mem­bers of Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party were un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Stalin’s crimes were openly dis­cussed. Some­times it felt like all the coun­try was surf­ing on top of an avalanche. Writ­ers, mu­si­cians, artists came out from un­der­ground. Peo­ple were smil­ing to each other on the streets. Works of Rus­sian writ­ers like Solzhen­it­syn, Platonov, Bul­gakov, Nabokov and many more were pub­lished and sold in book­shops. Every week new names were shifted from the files of ‘en­emy of the State’ to the ‘good peo­ple of the State’. But the for­mer Com­mu­nist state re­mained one big cir­cus, with clowns and il­lu­sion­ists out­do­ing each other in the public arena. Un­for­tu­nately this free­dom didn’t last. In 1994 power in Be­larus was taken by Pres­i­dent Lukashenko and over the next few years Be­larus be­came a to­tal­i­tar­ian coun­try.

Was Aus­tralia your first choice when you left Be­larus in 1997?

No. Aus­tralia was an ac­ci­den­tal choice. My first thought of Aus­tralia was ‘it’s hor­ri­ble’. All I knew about Aus­tralia was fifty-de­gree heat, only five per cent of land live­able, the rest desert, ocean full of sharks, killer jel­ly­fish, croc­o­diles, snakes, spi­ders – ev­ery­thing there is out there to kill me. I also knew the Opera House, Croc­o­dile Dundee and Skippy.

Did you con­sider go­ing to art school in Syd­ney?

I’d love to go to art school. Un­for­tu­nately, I had to work, to sur­vive, sup­port my­self. It wasn’t op­tional. My so­lu­tion was to teach my­self by go­ing to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The gallery was as­ton­ish­ing. I found Van Gogh there. Sid­ney Nolan, his work, straight away a deep im­pact. The same with Brett White­ley. I spent a lot of time in front of many mas­ter­pieces from the col­lec­tion, work­ing out tech­nique. Later at home I would test my ideas on can­vas. I also was read­ing art books of dif­fer­ent artists and was re­ally tuned into learn­ing.

Why is death a crit­i­cal sub­ject in your paint­ings?

I was about seven years old and out­side our block of apart­ments, there were hu­man re­mains ev­ery­where. The Soviet author­ity made a park by de­mol­ish­ing a big six­teenth-cen­tury Jew­ish ceme­tery. Peo­ple were dig­ging up bones and skulls in search of gold teeth and so on. Quite sur­real. The first time I found a skull, I took it home. Hold­ing the skull was kind of like Ham­let’s mo­ment. I got re­ally fright­ened of death. Through­out my life, I learnt how to let go of the fear of death: to live death. Death is the end of the chap­ter called life. I value life through un­der­stand­ing my mor­tal­ity. I value time and peo­ple’s time. Death is a very im­por­tant sub­ject, it tells me one day I have to leave this world, so live my life­time with pur­pose, live with dig­nity and re­spect oth­ers. So death is ev­ery­thing, death is the best teacher.

You use a lot of white with your colours, what is hap­pen­ing here?

I’m very con­scious of white. To me white is pu­rity, in­no­cence. White is air, light, it is con­densed en­ergy of all colours be­fore they are borne onto the can­vas. I had a clin­i­cal death ex­pe­ri­ence once in Be­larus. I was stand­ing naked in some strange place, the floor and walls were all white tiles, like an op­er­at­ing theatre. Ev­ery­thing was filled up with sparkling di­a­mond dust, I was breath­ing this dust, it was go­ing through my eyes, my skin. It was like I could see every sin­gle pho­ton, like I could see the essence of light, eter­nal light. I had been dead for more than three min­utes.

Myth­i­cal icons, with ma­chines and weapons – what are you try­ing to tell us?

When I think about modern so­ci­ety, I see it as a very sick men­tal pa­tient who lives in a re­al­ity con­structed by its own delu­sional mind. It de­lib­er­ately con­fuses good and evil to serve its goals. Con­science, ethics and moral­ity are a bur­den for such a so­ci­ety. Highly de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy in the hands of these ma­ni­acs is a great dan­ger to the ex­is­tence of our world. The paint­ing Bomber Je­sus (2008) was my re­sponse to the bomb­ing of Iraq. How dare politi­cians ma­nip­u­late the re­li­gious feel­ings of the peo­ple to jus­tify mur­der! It is dif­fi­cult to see how it dif­fers from that of a se­rial killer. To­day re­li­gious ter­mi­nol­ogy is used as a brain­wash­ing agent to serve a world dom­i­na­tion agenda. A to­tal para­noid world, pack­aged and sold to us. On the bright side I have a very deep feel­ing that peo­ple are not buy­ing it.

The apoc­a­lyp­tic sub­ject has also been very im­por­tant.

In my se­rial ‘Four Rid­ers’ (2010–2014) I am con­tem­plat­ing the sub­ject of the Apoca­lypse. Sci­ence tells us that we are now liv­ing in the sixth mass ex­tinc­tion and that hu­man ac­tiv­ity is a driv­ing force be­hind this ex­tinc­tion. I think Apoca­lypse was man­i­fested by the col­lec­tive hu­man mind. The pop­u­la­tion is brain­washed through sys­tems of false be­liefs and val­ues that tol­er­ate vi­o­lence to­wards na­ture be­cause we are made to be­lieve that na­ture is here to serve us. We are made to be­lieve that we are in deadly com­pe­ti­tion with each other and vi­o­lence is needed. Most im­por­tantly we are made to be­lieve that it is a nat­u­ral way of ex­is­tence, so we won’t ask the ques­tions: ‘Who will ben­e­fit from all the wars and de­struc­tion of the planet, and who is be­hind this mad­ness?’ I am from a coun­try where twenty five per cent of the pop­u­la­tion was ex­ter­mi­nated by nazis in World War Two. For me Apoca­lypse is hap­pen­ing now, it is al­ways near, next to me; it is liv­ing in a par­al­lel re­al­ity. Its ul­ti­mate form is war.

Is that why you paint ba­bies with mil­i­tary weapons?

Dis­pos­able Dis­ci­ples (2014) is a di­rect and straight­for­ward work. We now know the part of the male brain that is re­spon­si­ble for risk as­sess­ment is not fully formed un­til the age of twenty five. At the age of eigh­teen boys can – in many coun­tries, must – join the army. Boys that can’t ad­e­quately re­spond to risk are sent into the bat­tle­field. Many of my class­mates who went through the Afghan war told me that only five out of ten new re­cruits sur­vived the first fight. Dis­pos­able Dis­ci­ples is a work about of­fi­cially jus­ti­fied slaugh­ter of in­no­cent lives. It is a crim­i­nally in­sane, soul­less sit­u­a­tion that costs so much grief.

Do you see a time when your sculp­tures won’t need the hands of oth­ers?

The main rea­son that I worked on the sculp­tures was to col­lab­o­rate with master crafts­man, Phillip Gi­rar­dot. Our com­bined en­er­gies com­ple­mented each other, trans­form­ing ideas into three-di­men­sional ob­jects. We were get­ting high on the magic, the cre­ative mo­ments. A real sense of com­rade­ship. I en­joyed the process even more than the re­sult. To work on the sculp­ture of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties to bring many hands, tal­ents and minds to­gether, it be­comes more than a vis­ual art ob­ject, it be­comes a phi­los­o­phy: col­lab­o­ra­tion as a di­rec­tion in which civil­i­sa­tion is peace­fully mov­ing for­ward in­stead of in com­pe­ti­tion, which is where we are now.

It has been a year since your solo ex­hi­bi­tion ‘An­thro­pocene’ at the Wol­lon­gong Art Gallery. What have you taken from this ex­pe­ri­ence?

The ex­hi­bi­tion ac­ti­vated a new se­quence in my pro­fes­sional and per­sonal evo­lu­tion. I was deeply moved to see peo­ple of all na­tion­al­i­ties, ages, so­cial and re­li­gious groups ask­ing the same burn­ing ques­tion: ‘What can I do to make things bet­ter?’ It is clear that eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems are a con­se­quence of moral and eth­i­cal choices. The other dis­cov­ery was that I found a new paint­ing tech­nique that has al­lowed me to re­lease more of my per­sonal en­ergy into the can­vas. I’m still work­ing on this tech­nique now.

The wave paint­ings sug­gest a move to ab­strac­tion?

I am evolv­ing, and my work is evolv­ing with me. I am learn­ing how to trust my in­tu­ition. In­tu­ition tells me that there is much more in life than my eye can see. My mind can­not pen­e­trate the mys­tery of life; the mind is a good ser­vant but a dread­ful master. What is re­al­ity? How to de­fine it? What I do is of­ten dic­tated by my sub­con­scious, it just hap­pens, it isn’t planned. These paint­ings emerged by their own will; I was just a tool in bring­ing them out.

Art is a flow of en­ergy, all I have to do is just di­rect it. Art is also an ex­per­i­ment that is never over, it is a med­i­ta­tive process in which an idea is choos­ing a medium, an idea is de­mand­ing to be ex­e­cuted in a cer­tain tech­nique. I would like to give more space to the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion, I want the viewer to be a co-cre­ator of the work, and I feel that the ab­stract style suits it well. The ab­stract gives me an op­por­tu­nity for tran­si­tion to a more colour­ful palette, it loosens me up, gives me more free­dom, and brings more fun in my stu­dio time. If I am mov­ing to­wards ab­stract, so be it. Who knows where the sun­rise will take me to­mor­row?

Cour­tesy the artist and Wol­lon­gong Art Gallery, New South Wales

06 ‘Arthur Apanski: An­thro­pocene’, 2017, in­stal­la­tion view, Wol­lon­gong Art Gallery, 2017 07 Dis­pos­able Dis­ci­ples, 2014, oil on can­vas, 101 x 101 cm 08 Dis­pos­able Dis­ci­ples, 2014, oil on can­vas, 101 x 101 cm 09 Pre­mo­ni­tion Black, 2016, oil on can­vas, 88 x 395 cm

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