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.
CAN YOU BEGIN WITH AFGHANISTAN?
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?
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