Conversation with Pawel Pepperstein at the Studio of Sergei Bugaev (Afrika)

Austrian critic Heike Wegner in a kitchen dialogue with Pawel Pepperstein, co-founder of the Medical Hermeneutics group, about the former enfant terrible of Petersburg’s neo-avantgarde, Afrika (Sergei Bugaev).

Heike Wegner: Missing an adequate language of my own, I started to collect statements by others about Afrika, so that I might be able to write about him. If you were asked what is important to you about Afrika, what would you say?

Pawel Pepperstein: Generally speaking?

H. W.: Yes. Maybe as an artist, maybe as a good friend. Perhaps you could say something concrete about his connection to the circle of Moscow artists to which you also belong. I ask you as a representative of contemporary Russian art, but also as a private person. We are here, after all, in a very special, even private place, for it was here that we met for the first time . . . I would like to know what you think might be important to say about our host . . .

P. P.: There are many aspects to Afrika. What I find appealing, for example, is his very special relationship with art. He does not identify with the role of the artist. I think that Sergei has no such self-identification whatever. He does not place a high value on the image and role of an artist. I like this independence, I can relate to it. I myself like to think of myself as absolutely independent.

H. W.: Could you explain this a little more . . . what does it mean not to identify with the role of an artist when, after all, you are an artist?

P. P.: I grew up surrounded by artists, I know a lot of them. There are certain specific personality traits that artists have, certain syndromes . . .

H. W.: Do you mean to say that in calling yourself an artist, you are playing a part?

P. P.: There are certain artists who in their soul do not experience themselves as artists. I appreciate such an attitude, not least because artists who experience themselves as “artists” perceive being an artist as being ultimately somehow more than human. This is dangerous and can even become pathological. Unfortunately, there are many such artists, all with their special “artists'” passions and with “artists'” desires and fears. Usually their desires gravitate towards their own fame . . . An artist is someone who desires fame and special attention for his name and works. The artist considers these works his or her children, children about which s/he cares passionately. One of the artist’s greatest fears is that these children might get lost or even destroyed – not to mention the problem of getting them to be exhibited in museums and galleries. I cannot really understand this desire, because it seems to me that artistic objects are not children, they are not alive, and it is not really important what happens to them. For Afrika, this kind of thing has never been important, he is interested in lots of different things: he can be an actor in a movie (as we have seen), a politician, a DJ, whatever. It is not only art that he is interested in. He is interested in people, in social reality, in social situations . . . He is fascinated by culture in general. As he keeps quiet about problems of art, Sergei [Afrika] is very enthusiastic about problems of culture. Yet art and culture are not the same thing! Afrika is also a cultural preservationist with a passion for collecting. He collects objects passionately. I like his principle of collecting. Usually collectors have a special kind of object that they like and prefer to collect – not Afrika, who collects simply everything!

H. W.: Last week I asked him: Is there anything that you do not collect? He answered by saying that he does not collect anything! Of course, my question may have been asked the wrong way, because he does not collect in the common sense of that word…

P. P.: He is a collector, yet in a different, unusual sense of that word. He collects remnants or broken objects in order to preserve them. For example, when the Lenin Museum in Moscow shut down, Afrika rescued some of its exhibits. It’s the same with all of the objects he collects, they are all the remains of something. Perhaps this is a very important impulse in the Russian situation, this desire to preserve something. .

H. W.: Such as an identity?

P. P.: Rather a memory. I would not use the term identity here because what you have in Afrika’s collection is by no means all Russian or Soviet. There are artworks by Tibetan monks . . . These things are “simply” memories, it’s about memory itself. In the West, you feel how culture is very stable, how there are institutions charged with the preservation of the cultural heritage. Here, on the other hand, you feel that everything is falling apart, that there are no institutions that could function as preserving mechanisms. That is the reason why in times such as these personal involvement is so important.

H. W.: Which role does Afrika [who is from Saint Petersburg] play in the Moscow art scene, especially with regard to the Medical Hermeneutics group?

P. P.: Although I had met him a little earlier for the first time, I really came to know Sergei through my friend Sergei Anufriev, a member of Medical Hermeneutics. He knew Afrika before me, they have always been close friends. I already knew a lot about Afrika from Sergei when we met for the second time in 1983/84. It was Afrika who established the cultural exchange between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now there are many intellectual and artistic contacts, friendships, and so on. Afrika’s main achievement was perhaps that he opened up St. Petersburg to us… This was strange for me, since before I had rarely come to Leningrad. This changed only thanks to the bridge built by Afrika and others from his small circle of friends, such as Victor Mazin and Olesya Turkina – also, from the Moscow side, thanks to Anufriev. I was more of a consumer than one of the pioneers of this development.

H. W.: Now you are a member of the small Kabinet circle and its journal. Could you please tell me something about your collaboration with Kabinet?

P. P.: It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be mentioned as a member of the editorial staff of Kabinet. I am really proud of this because I like Kabinet and how it’s organized… I am happy to have found a circle that is not only friendly, but alsointellectually close to ours. Sergei Anufriev and I are part of Kabinet, and the Kabinet-circle is, for us, a part of Medical Hermeneutics. I consider myself very lucky because I very much depend on a variety of venues. Petersburg is very different from Moscow, but it’s also very important. Oddly, Saint Petersburg has a very good reputation in Moscow, but that is not the case the other way around. Moscow has a bad reputation in Saint Petersburg, which is understandable. For people from Moscow, Saint Petersburg has always been associated with vacations, having fun. For example, when people from Moscow fall in love, they traditionally go to Saint Petersburg for a few days to spend time together . . .

(Afrika enters the kitchen.)

P. P.: You know that we are recording an interview about you, don’t you?

A.: I am not disturbing, am I?

P. P.: No. Would you mind if I ask you something, Sergei?

A.: Me? Sure . . .

P. P.: Do you know somebody called Afrika?

A.: Yes, I met him when I was 14.

P. P.: Where? In New York?

A.: (Laughter) No. No, no, no. We met in Sevastopol. We were on a trip together.

P. P.: What kind of trip?

A.: A trip which the Workers’ Trade Union had organized for the canteen where my mother was working at the time.

P. P.: What was your first impression of Afrika?

A.: He was younger than the rest of the group, very nice. Communication was easy with him.

P. P.: And do you see him often now? Do you have a good relationship?

A.: Sure, we like each other very much and see each other often… (Laughter)

P. P.: Do you work with him, or is your relationship of a more private nature?

A.: We do a lot together. I think he is much better than the rest of the people in the world I have met. We are really close, although it’s not sexual . . .

P. P.: Not sexual . . .

A.: Well, that, too, but that’s not the only reason we like each other.

P. P.: So what could be the next question?)

(Laughter. We take a break.)

H. W.: I would like to take up the issue of memory again. Could you tell us about a typical situation with Afrika, some experience you have shared?

P. P.: About two years ago we visited the Russian Museum together, that was a special moment. At about the same time there was a psychiatric conference organized by Afrika. There are many facets to his interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, especially regarding his friendship with Doctor Samochvalov, the director of a psychiatric hospital in Crimea. Afrika did several projects with him, all focused on the subject of psychiatry. Psychiatry was then also a real “situation” for Afrika, since he stayed at the clinic as a patient, sharing the life of mentally ill people. After that he did an exhibition at the clinic, followed by similar exhibitions in alternative spaces (for example in Vienna). This side of the human experience is very important to Afrika. For example, we have just seen the uncut version of a film dealing with psychiatry, a typical example of Sergei’s way of creating. The film is a mixture of a documentary and an adventure story. On the one hand, it portrays real people and their sufferings, reflecting the often gloomy reality of psychiatric clinics. Yet at the same time it is a humorous, even lighthearted adventure story. On the one hand, we have a Western type of referentiality, one that is typical in particular of protestant culture, where similar films usually address some appalling reality with the idea that the collective consciousness will be provoked. Such films strive to provoke protest, they want to make the viewer want to change a given situation. All this is certainly present in Afrika’s work. But then there is the other, oriental half, whereby black humor accompanies the portrayal of the terrible reality. This is a very paradoxical, strange mixture, hard to accept for a Western viewer. In the West, it has to be either this or that, either a serious representation of social responsibility without a sense of humor, or nothing but black humor, an absurd performance without any moralistic effect. I think that his friendship with Samochvalov is also very important for Afrika because Samochvalov, together with psychiatrists from other countries, created a special psychiatric theory . . . It’s an evolutionary theory that tries to change the public view of psychical illness. This theory proposes that we should not just see mental illness in a negative light, as a system of defects but also as a possibility for mankind. Mental patients have a completely different perspective on the situation of our planet! For example, schizophrenics apparently have the ability to survive in very cold temperatures. If by way of some ecological disaster it were to get much colder on earth, then the schizophrenic would probably be considered normal. The definition of normality would have to adapt to the new situation. If, on the other hand, it were to get hot instead of cold . . . who knows, maybe then paranoia would be considered normal. I don’t know which syndrome has the best chances of survival in a hot climate. What is important is that psychical sickness be seen not just as a sickness – a utopian idea. And this is very important for Afrika, because he is basically a utopianist.

H. W.: I would like to dwell on this point for a moment. In the Kabinet group, Afrika is responsible for communications. I have often noticed, for instance in the film you mentioned, that psychiatric patients seem to combine very basic codes with a high intensity of communication, not unlike body language or nonverbal speech. How might this become useful for such utopian aims?

P. P.: It can certainly be useful. The main characteristic of Afrika’s utopianism is a firm belief in science. Everywhere in his works we find this deep trust in science. Using psychoanalytical language, one could say that for Afrika, the scientist is a father-figure that always searches and experiments. It is in a sense a vision of God. Afrika has never had any moral or humanistic doubts concerning scientific experiments, even cruel ones. He has an a priori belief experiments, like the son who is the eternal object of the experimenting father. Samochvalov, for example, is one of these father figures. On the one hand, he experiments with his patients, but at the same time he loves them. Still, his is not a very sentimental love, if I understand it correctly.

H. W.: Could you please clarify what you mean by sentimental / non-sentimental love?

P. P.: Sentimental love is first of all an effort to protect its objects from pain. By contrast, unsentimental love is a love that tortures, always subjecting its object to trials. It is as in the Old Testament, when God forbids Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of revelation, which of course raises the question why the possibility for such a choice was given in the first place? It was cruel to offer the possibility of this choice.

H. W.: At the beginning of our interview, you said that politics is another of Afrika’s many interests. He is an adviser to one of the deputies in the Russian State Duma. What do you know about Afrika’s political activities?

P. P.: Nothing. All I know is that he is a member of “Yabloko”. I have a feeling that it almost does not matter to Afrika to which party or political organization he belongs. He just finds it interesting to play the game. He also likes the social surroundings and the fact that he can choose to be a member of this or the other faction or party, for different reasons. I don’t believe that Afrika is involved in the ideological aspects of his party. Furthermore, the ideology of this party is so smooth that it is hard to get involved. The only thing that is clear, with “Yabloko”, is that it is against something – it is a typical opposition party. This is the only thing I can say about this party.

H. W.: It’s just another game Afrika is involved in?

P. P.: Exactly. For him it is interesting to be part of something that provokes a lively public reaction, evoking an interest in people. I don’t think that he would like to be involved in a game that is not interesting to others. I think he has the strong wish to follow the interests and wishes of others.

H. W.: My own experience with Afrika has always been that he works hard, no matter where and when I met him. Even though it may not seem like it at first glance, he puts a lot of effort into his work.

P. P.: Yes. But now we have to explain what it means to be serious, because that is unclear! You can work very passionately, doing as best you can, but at the same time not take it seriously. That is possible. You know that Afrika considers himself a pupil of Andy Warhol’s. I think that everything we are talking about here with regard to Afrika was also the case for Andy Warhol. He, too, was absolutely fascinated by everyone who had a high profile in the collective consciousness. Warhol always took photos of such people and wanted to be close to them, be one of them. Still, Warhol was much more of a voyeur than Afrika, he was an observer of people. So it was important to him that there should be something important going on. The desire to be in the spotlight, a zone of special intensity, was Warhol’s addiction.

H. W.: It seems to be impossible to mention Andy Warhol without also mentioning Joseph Beuys, with regard to Afrika . . .

P. P.: Yes, Beuys was a great influence too, he contributed a social and political dimension to Afrika’s shaman and archeological interests. In a way, Afrika reconstructs Warhol and Beuys. Of course, there are lots of other artists that could be mentioned in this context, such as John Cage.

H. W.: I have seen many artist’s studios, but I have never seen one quite like this before. Would you say that is a typical studio for a Russian artist?

P. P.: Not at all. But then, as I told you, Afrika is not just an artist. That is why his studio is so special – it’s not just a studio but a multi-functional place. First of all it’s a museum, the place where Afrika keeps his collection. All of the things gathered here are different, there is no profile to the collection. I think that what Afrika does in his “studio” is to create an atmosphere for the kind of gatherings between people that form the basis of culture. It’s a very hospitable, open space. I wouldn’t consider it an artist’s studio.

H. W.: I would like to focus for a moment on the question of language. Different kinds of language coincide with different ways of thinking. Even though it is basically just sound, language is a part of culture. (It seems to be a bit silly to speak English in this place…) Do you think that Russian might have been more suitable to express what we have been talking about here?

P. P.: No, on the contrary, it is probably a good thing thatwe speak an international language such as English because that requires self-discipline, it reduces our exotic appearance.