Art sprouts in russia

The New York Times
September 29, 2010
Art Sprouts in Russia

LIKE something from a Russian fairy tale, a solitary tower rises through the morning mist blanketing a field deep in the forest of the Kaluga region south of Moscow. Woven from blackened willow branches in a traditional Ukrainian fence-making manner, the structure is 60 feet high and, on closer inspection, has a vaguely industrial-apocalyptic look, like one of the giant cooling towers at the electricity plants on the outskirts of Moscow.

Farther down an unpaved road, other structures appear: a horn composed of wood and cloth spanning the road; a grand two-story rotunda with 20 mismatched doors standing alone in the tall grass.

If you’re visiting Moscow and want to view this sprawling exhibition as an extended day trip, you should rise before dawn, find an English-speaking dispatcher from a car service and make tracks early enough to escape the rush hour.

As you head south, the pastel Italian palaces and Constructivist buildings of the city center give way to fast-food restaurants, discount stores and row upon row of crumbling slums from the Khrushchev era. About 100 miles south of Moscow, signs for a fabric factory appear. Here is where you take a right on an unmarked road lined with thick stands of pine and birch. When the pavement becomes skimpy and bone-rattling, you know you’re getting close.

The destination is the village of Nikola-Lenivets, whose sculptures are the brainchild of the Russian landscape painter Nikolay Polissky. With architect friends and a team of collective-farmers-turned-installation-artists, Mr. Polissky has been making large-scale sculptures from natural materials in and around the village since 2000.

The folk- and eco-themed art has also recently landed on the cultural map thanks to the growing popularity of Archstoyanie (, a six-year-old summer festival that draws thousands of people, many of them young Russians who call themselves “children of art” or “art nomads.”

This year’s festival, “Archstoyanie 2010: The Nine Keys of the Labyrinth,” on July 24 and 25, brought tattooed and tie-dyed art lovers from all over Russia. The night before the festival opened, colorful tents had mushroomed in the village’s yards and common spaces, with others in the fields and woods. The guest curator, Oleg Kulik, wandered barefoot and shirtless among them, twirling purple glass meditation balls and inviting people to join him at dawn to watch the sun rise over a labyrinth installed by the Russian artists Sergey de Rocambole and Anna Nikolaeva.

But the festival is not the only opportunity to view the structures. They are open to the public year round, and are especially lovely during the summer and fall.

There is no other art installation like it in Russia — or perhaps anywhere. The sculpture tally at the 2010 festival stood at 45 works, 25 of them new. They are spread over a 1,100-acre area, and visitors can see many from the unpaved road leading to Nikola-Lenivets or by wandering through the tranquil village of wooden houses. Others can be found by following forest paths visibile from the artist Alexander Brodsky’s “Rotunda,” built in 2009. The works can often be entered, climbed up, or even waded through, as in the case of “Underwater Demon,” a cage-like fountain that can be reached by walking along a submerged bridge on the surface of a pond.

At this point, the area is not well set up for tourists.