Andrei Molodkin sits opposite me in a comfortable office in the heart of Victoria. Ironically, he laughs, it belongs to a Russian oil tycoon who happens to be sponsoring his upcoming exhibition Liquid Modernity: Grid and Greed. He’s dressed in black, and I get the uncanny feeling he might be sizing me up for a future work from under a long, untidy fringe. He’s not the tall, austere ex-military Russian I was expecting. After reading the current hype surrounding his latest proposal – to condense humans into oil to pump through his sculptures – I am beginning to see what they mean.
Following the recent trend of artists such as Mark Quin and von Hagens, whose careers were propelled into the limelight aftershowing sculptures made using human body parts, Molodkin’sname, which until now has been fairly low-profile in the UK has, inthe space of a month, filled newspapers nationwide. Engineered ornot, the timing is perfect. April sees the opening of Molodkin’s UK solo debut Liquid Modernity: Grid and Greed at the new Orel Galleryin London. Exhibiting everywhere from Moscow and Paris to NewYork, he tells me – after admitting he’s visited London only twice inhis life – how excited he is to debut in a city where ‘there is a lot ofenergy and people are more experimental with concepts and ideas’.
Molodkin was educated as an artist, but it wasn’t until a compulsory two-year stint in the Soviet Army that he began to develop the conceptual, modernist style that characterises his latest work. Using oil to keep warm while serving on transporter trains in Siberia, he began to see the considerable physical and economic value oil created in society. He swapped ballpoint pens – an earlier ‘democratic’ medium – for crude oil in his 2006 Democracy exhibition, and started to explore the role of oil within Western culture by transforming the organic resource into an aesthetic form. Using Perspex to cast words or iconic cultural forms into moulds, he then pumps them with oil as a symbol of governmental and economic ‘fuel’. ‘If you repeat the word “democracy” a thousand times, the meaning starts to become empty,’ he describes. ‘It’s like a vacant form. And with every vacant form, there’s the possibility to fill it up again.’
Continuing in the same vein, Molodkin’s new exhibition portrays oil as a symbol both of hope and despair. Taking inspiration from the defendants’ cages in Russian courtrooms, Molodkin has chosen to exhibit two identical ‘grids’ or cages. Oil is pumped through one grid into a mini-refinery, which produces gas. This in turn produces electricity, which lights up the second grid. ‘It’s the same idea in Modernism. Mondrian and other artists used grids as conceptions of Modernism,’ he says. ‘I try to connect with the Russian avant-garde and the grid in our brain that everyone has, like a grid of oil, or a grid of another resource.’
With this ‘resource’ in our brain, we have the power to make decisions. In his exhibition, Molodkin relates this idea back to the trials of Russian oligarchs and the words ‘Das Kapital’ that hang on another wall, mirroring these grids in their black versus white standoff. He talks again about democracy, the way it is praised and how Russia is rebuked for lack of it. ‘In discussion, people say that Russia doesn’t have a democracy. But we have an oil democracy. Maybe it is black, but we can transform it into white.’
Keeping it positive, Molodkin assures me that oil is in fact a symbol of life after death. ‘Life is converted into oil, oil is converted intomoney and money is converted into opportunity,’ he explains. Inrecent projects, Molodkin has chosen to bring a new factor into thisequation. Representing Russia for his entry into the 53rd VeniceBiennale, Molodkin is proposing a colossal Perspex cast of theWinged Victory of Samothrace pumped with a mixture of crude oiland, yes, human blood. Oil is the blood of society, he says, and thephysical appearance of blood is, perhaps, a starker metaphor for therole of the masses in the political and economic battle for oil.
‘I try to show, for instance, that poor people are the same kind of resource as oil. They are used as a resource in China, in Russia, everywhere. After the Communist regime fell in Russia, over the course of 15 years we lost maybe 15m of the population, but westarted to produce much more oil.’ Perhaps this is why, Molodkin theorises, the government ‘kills so many people in the places where they produce oil’. ‘Maybe, unconsciously, they think killing a million people will recover this resource for the future.’
Expanding on this idea, Molodkin is exploring new substances to communicate the importance of ordinary people in the fight for oil. He is now in the process of producing his first sculptures pumped, solely, with the physical remains of human bodies – cut into pieces and boiled down over a period of about six months, producing a ‘sweet, yellowish crude’.
By simply changing one of the ingredients in the overall construction of the sculptures, we are led to question ‘this materialistic converting of one “product” into another’. Just how far will we go in this ‘oil-dependent society’ to reach our economic goals?