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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being an Artist Is Serious Business

Courtesy of Andrei Bartenev
Andrei Bartenev has come a long way from the communal apartment in Norilsk where he grew up. A favorite of magazine photographers for his outlandish outfits, the artist counts the fashion designer Zhandra Rhodes among his friends, won second place in an Alternative Miss World contest, and appeared on the British television show "Blue Peter."

With his shaven head, pale skin and cat's-eye shaped glasses, he is an instantly recognizable figure, even when he dresses down, as he did for an interview earlier this month: black trousers and shirt, tweed cap and a diamante belt buckle in the shape of a dollar sign.

The prolific artist has put together books on body art and magazine design, designed costumes for a staging of writer Daniil Kharms, and has exhibited high-tech installations at Moscow House of Photography and Art Moskva fair, to name just a few of his projects.

Polite and quietly spoken in interviews, Bartenev, 37, has a more outrageous persona. To promote his book on magazine design and an accompanying exhibition this spring, he danced wildly on a podium wearing a skin-tight turquoise body suit and leaped into the crowd to embrace guests.

Becoming an artist is about choosing the "hard road," Bartenev said, giving a tongue-in-cheek description of his current financial status as "somewhere between a person who has lost his job and a homeless person."

The artist grew up in Norilsk, a city beyond the Arctic Circle, where houses are built on permafrost and there is no daylight for two months of the year. His parents worked in construction, but sent their son, who "drew all the time," to a school with extra art lessons.

Bartenev chose to continue his education in one of the hottest and sunniest cities in Russia, Krasnodar. He planned to become a theater director: Work in the theater appealed because it was a "synthetic art" that could combine painting, dance and words, he said.

While a student, Bartenev made friends with other young artists; they formed an informal group called the Salon of Free Artists that held exhibitions and the first "happenings," he recalled.

"Starting to do what you feel, what you want to do," is how he remembers this period. He realized that he didn't want to work in "fossilized structure," such as the theater.

A year after graduating, Bartenev moved to Moscow, first to an outlying district, and then, in 1990, to Taganka, where he still lives. For many years, he didn't make ends meet as an artist and was helped by his parents, but he began to make a name for himself with performances, exhibitions and costume designs both in Russia and abroad.

Courtesy of Andrei Bartenev
Andrei Bartenev says his decision to take on corporate art projects was inevitable.
In 1992, he met the British artist and designer Andrew Logan at an avant-garde festival in Latvia. This meeting led on to Bartenev taking part, and winning second place, in Logan's Alternative Miss World contest in 1995, and also to his becoming friends with members of a new circle: fashion designer Rhodes, theater director and designer Robert Wilson, and singer Brian Eno, among others, who began to collect his art.

"I have met very many wonderful people, and probably everything happened just at the right moment," he said. "You do something and then there appears some kind of continuation. And then it depends on you yourself."

In 1996, he had an exhibition at a London gallery and, unusually for a Russian avant-garde artist, was invited onto the children's television show "Blue Peter," where his performance began with a dramatic entrance on skis.

It was only around 1998, however, that he became financially independent from his parents, the artist said. He now has "a lot of work" in Moscow, he said, although he travels widely. He thinks about emigrating to London and New York, but is put off by the language barrier. "I speak English very badly with a strong accent," he said.

Unlike artists such as Zurab Tsereteli and Ilya Glazunov, he does not receive patronage and gallery space from the city government. "I don't have that talent to especially organize relationships," he commented. "The worst thing is to especially organize feelings."

That's not to say he isn't businesslike. He has a professional web site and a manager and actually answers his mobile phone. He also takes on corporate art projects: He is doing something for a car company this month. "It's inevitable. Of course, it bothers me."

His organizational skills are just a "sliver" of what is normal in Europe and the United States, he said. Being practical and an artist are no longer seen as incompatible in Russia, he said, pointing to the Moscow House of Photography, which runs popular, commercially sponsored festivals and invites Western stars.

"That's how things should be around a great artist," he said.