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Alexander Skorobogatov

In Conversation

with Katherine Rochester

The approach to Alexander Skorobogatov’s studio does not prepare you for what lies inside. Housed in a former Stasi building, visitors must pass through a labyrinth of silent hallways and thick steel doors before arriving at his light filled corner studio. “Sometimes you can really feel it,” says the Russian-born artist who moved to Berlin in 1996, “it can be a heavy place to work.” But Skorobogatov has created an oasis. There are several sculptures in the shape of giant plants, comprised of richly textured silicone leaves drooping over rebar stalks. Paintings on canvas—also burgeoning with vivid flora—dot the walls and floors. Although his studio might look like a jungle, Skorobogatov insists, “actually I don’t want to do this flora. That’s not the point. I’m not trying to compete with nature. My next projects will be more abstract.”

“Everything can be flora, actually. Flora lends itself to abstraction.”

When you say “more abstract,” are you thinking about both painting and sculpture?

No, not painting. In painting I still need some real things, some objects. I mean, it’s always a game. At this point, the plants are just a means to abstraction. In my earlier paintings I used animals to arrive at abstraction because from a color spot you can create an animal and from an animal, you can abstract again. But since I didn’t want to paint animals, I needed something else. Flora was the answer because the idea of flora is so undefined. You can see that in Rousseau, for example. Everything can be flora, actually. Flora lends itself to abstraction. On the other hand, I’m also very interested in juxtaposing abstraction and figuration. More and more when I paint flora combined with the female body I’m interested in the way flora either facilitates or impedes voyeurism. The idea of parting dark leaves, of peeking through, of imagining what you want to see before you actually see it; this is the erotic moment. The more I paint, the more the plants and flora became erotic on their own, even without the fetishistic addition of a female form.

How do you start when you’re making a sculpture versus a painting?

I never set out to be a sculptor, so if I make sculptures, they always emerge first through my painting practice. When I decide to bring a painting into space, I have an idea about the form it should take. And then I move in on that form. In sculpture, I realize the form really fast because with every leaf and mould I get closer to the original idea. Each leaf dictates the next leaf, each part is logically related to the eventual whole. For me, it’s much easier to make the three-dimensional work because I know if it’s right or not as I build it. Painting is different. In painting, even if I have an idea about the form I want, even if I put the brush on the canvas and make a line, there are no rules or borders. I always need to have an idea to start—that’s the reason I start—but in painting it is much less defined than in sculpture. When I paint, the first stroke does not fundamentally determine the course of the painting. That first stroke could lead anywhere.

It sounds like steering a painting to completion is not as straightforward as steering a sculpture, which I find very interesting because in one sense it’s much more delimited. You have a canvas and that’s it. You’re working with these predetermined dimensions and that’s the surface you have, whereas in a sculpture you’re creating infinite surfaces to your own specifications. Do you feel like you have a larger range of motion in your painting?

Absolutely. Because with sculpture there is always a room in which my piece will live. I have to build the piece for that room and if the room is two meters high and two meters wide then these spatial dimensions largely determine the size of the piece. However, with painting, even if the canvas is only 50 by 40 centimeters, the space nevertheless feels incredibly big. Painting feels limitless.

You went to a lot of art schools: Academy of Fine Arts Mainz, Academy of Fine Arts Saarbrücken, Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), Central St. Martins. What is the value of a formal arts education to your own artistic practice?

Arts education in Germany is based on the concept of “Freie Kunst.” If you compare it to the Russian tradition, to the old dudes who teach students how to paint still lifes, portraits, scenery or copy old masters in 5 year programs, you can see that the German system values freedom of expression over slavish technical skill. After their education the Russians might paint and draw incredibly realistically but they’ve stifled everything creative inside themselves. They all use the same visual vocabulary. Outside of the post soviet realm no one seems to be very interested in their work, either, since there’s no point in painting realistically anymore because we have photography. But here in Germany, nobody tells you how to do it the ‘right’ way because there is no ‘right’ way. There’s no ‘wrong’ way either. You just have to find something interesting. The education is all about finding yourself or understanding yourself in relation to the art world. How to act, what’s possible? But you have plenty of time, five, six years. During that time you start making exhibitions, and through the practice of putting together exhibitions you start to understand how to hang a show and what the best way is for your own pieces to be exhibited. When you struggle you talk with fellow students who have the same problems. Competition is real but I don’t think you’re necessarily better off at Universität der Künste (UdK) than at Mainz or something. It is not about this. Although at UdK and Düsseldorf there are star teachers and if you study under Katharina Grosse, Peter Doig or Olafur Eliasson for example, you become recognized as their pupil. It’s like Jesus and the twelve apostles and the art world will pay attention. But if you study with unknown artists you have to fight.

"Centaur Fighting a Tiger while a Woman in a Pink Bikini hides." Alexander Skorobogatov © 2015
Alexander Skorobogatov with James Mckinnon

I wanted to ask you about your influences. You had all of this arts education. Who were you looking at, who were you listening to, who were you reading?

Well actually, I applied to Berlin first—it was my first choice. I lived in Berlin and wanted to stay, but Berlin didn’t want me.

The first time?

Three times! I think I applied 12 times in all, to various schools in Germany. Only Mainz took me the first time. In the end, I applied three times to UdK, three times to Düsseldorf, two times to Weißensee, Bremen, and Münster—they all said “no.” I still have the rejection letters. They all read something like, “The Commission says you have no talent.”


Berlin was the toughest—and Leipzig: “We decided that the piece you gave us to review isn’t even good enough to pass the first round of selection.” Over the course of two and a half years I tried relentlessly to get into UdK. Nobody applies that often. Everyone thought I was crazy and said, “If I were you I would do something else!” But for me, doing something else was not an option. When I finally got in after two and half years of applying, I channeled all that pent up anger into nonstop work.

During those two years of applying I often read ten hours a day and one of my favorite writers was Samuel Beckett. He somehow describes these spaces that remain undefined. It might be a big space, gray, but no—it’s actually a small space and the gray looks more like red. He says something and then he modifies it. He does it so often that you have only a foggy idea of the space he’s describing. It could be anything. He also describes these figures, which are like heads sitting on a stool with no eyes and no mouth and maybe an asshole in the hand. I was so impressed! When I first started to write about my work (I had to make an artist’s statement), I noticed that if I just took all the sentences I loved by Samuel Beckett, then it totally described my work. I had those very same spaces and those blurry faces in my early works. People said I was influenced by Francis Bacon but, actually, it was Beckett. I wasn’t even familiar with Bacon before I started to study!

I like a lot of artists and think they do great work, but I’m rarely directly inspired by them. It’s strange. Sometimes I’ll see a great spot on a painting by an artist I admire and then I try to do something completely different with it, I sort of translate it into my own vocabulary.

Photography by Fabian Zapatka and James Mckinnon

Katherine Rochester is an art historian based in Berlin. You can read her writing in Artforum, Art in America, Zéro Deux, and numerous other publications. She holds an M.A. from Bryn Mawr College and is currently completing a Ph.D. in art history also at Bryn Mawr College. Her research is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation Center for Curatorial Leadership, the Center for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD).