Sergei Serp Talks to Nadja Romain

A visual artist, film-maker, an actor, poet, Sergei "Serp" Barekov is one of the most original figures of the contemporary Russian art scene. He currently lives and works between Paris and Moscow. Born in Lvov (Ukraine), as a child he developed a fascination for the funeral processions regularly taking place in his hometown - an area of heavy military operation during World War II. To the point that he joined the processions, playing in a funeral orchestra. Arriving in Leningrad in 1984 to study, he became part of the cultural life of the city, starting to draw and act in independent films. Together with artists, Evgeny Yufit, Vladimir Kustov, Andrei Mertvyi, Igor Bezrukov and Valeri Morozov, they found the Necrorealist group. Though very controversial, the Necrorealists became active participants in the cultural life of Russia and were represented in several exhibitions and film festivals in and out of the USSR. In the early '90s, Pontus Hulten invited him to study at the Institut des Hautes Études en Art Plastique in Paris. Since then, Serp has experimented with new techniques and studied graphics and design. He then organised Hulten's vast collection of contemporary art, archives and library. His work is represented in public and private collections in Russia, Europe and the United States. In 2009, Serp exhibited Letter from the Island at Orel Art's new gallery space in London - the first 21st century exhibition to show new works by Necrorealism members. Serp's work will be part of the upcoming Necrorealism exhibition at Moscow Museum of Modern Art.

Nadja Romain Your biography is so rich and original we would need pages to explore it. But we could start with the biculturalism, as you are a Francophile. What's your relationship with France? Are there specific thinkers, artists or art movements that have an influence on your work? How do you feel within the French art community versus the Russian one and what does it bring to you living in both countries?
Sergei Serp Thanks to friendships between USRR and France's Communist Party, I had the opportunity of learning French at school in Russia. Later, France initiated me into contemporary art 
and taught me to love and respect it. In my role as an artist, nobody influences 
me because I exploit my own potential. I am more interested in peoples' lives, in their journey, their personality 
that in their work. And people like Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Daniel Buren, Iris Clert, Christian Boltanski, Georges Pompidou, Jean Tinguely and Pontus Hulten are characters from French culture that I find very interesting. When 
I first arrived, I had no specific expectations about the art community in Paris. 
I knew nothing about it. But, as an artist I feel very good in France, where 
I have more opportunities to achieve my creations. In Russia, I think. In France, 
I make. Living between France and Russia enriches me by the history of integration existing between these two countries.

NR You mentioned former French President, Georges Pompidou. Why is he so interesting to you?
SS Georges Pompidou was a brave politician. By creating the Centre Pompidou, he helped contemporary art to develop in France. He took out the classical art from his apartment at the presidential palace and replaced it with contemporary art. Can you imagine today the Presidents of Russia 
or France decorating their presidential palaces in Élysée or the Kremlin with Serp's works?

NR I do not for sure! I found it fascinating that you've worked with Ponthus Hulten. I was too young to see Paris-Moscow, Paris-Berlin, Paris-New York, his famous iconic exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou but I vividly remember Futurismo at Palazzo Grassi, or Terrotorium Artis in Bonn. Some of my best experiences. He has been one of the most influential curators of the past century. What's the most precious lesson you learnt from him?
SS Pontus Hulten taught me love 
and respect for art and artists. This is what is missing today in the art world in general, and particularly in Russia. He was truly passionate about what he was doing and that always gives the best results.

NR The first time I came across your work was when Ilona Orel showed me a series of inks, with this recurrent metaphorical figure of your art, the "Tree Man." Could you explain this figure, where it comes from?
SS This series of 36 drawings was created for the project, Île du Bûcheron in the Orel Art gallery in Paris. It is about a solitary man, a woodcutter living on an island, and during the long cold and rainy evenings, he draws his world. Its consciousness has stiffened and became part of a wood substance. Certainly, it is a metaphor of the consumer society in which we live today - 
more specifically in Russia. It is also a metaphor for Necrorealism. The movement is practically unknown worldwide, an island lost in the ocean. The artists who are part of Necrorealism are working and working… keep doing the same thing, over and over again, like the woodcutter who only knows how to cut wood. Cutting wood has similarities with the process of death. It's sudden and instant. After the wood has been cut, there are two parts as there is for man. One part is the living body before death and the other part is the corpse. The wooden shack with drawings and films inside was the central part of the installation. Paintings, photos and linen on a rope surrounded the house outside. The exhibition visitors are like Robinson Crusoe. They arrive on an island and discover the life of the woodcutter, the Necrorealism, and this feeling of death when we are lost in the unknown.

NR Not being Russian it feels that we're missing the keys to understand the symbolism of your work, which seems to be deeply influenced by Russian history, poetry and the common consciousness. What does the Slavic soul mean to you?
SS You can know and learn about 
the Russian soul but it's difficult to understand it. The keys might be found in orthodox culture. But today, the Slavic soul has almost disappeared. It, too, can 
be mortal as well as a human body. You should hurry and get a piece of Russian soul by buying Serp's works!

NR You were part of the group that started the Necrorealism movement in 
St Petersburg, with Vladimir Koustov and Eugeny Yufit. Where did the movement come from? How did you all meet?
SS Eugeny Yufit was making movies, so he would invite people to work with him as actors. We all met on his set. This is how it started. We all met once participating in his films.

NR There are as many ideas of what constitutes the cinematic signification of Death as there are filmmakers who attempt such signification. But what would be the one for Necrorealism. What is its legacy?
SS Necrorealism shows death raw, without tricks or make-up. It makes death visible and throws it in your face. Death is a series of shots of life ending by the point. For this reason, cinema is a very good means to introduce death.

NR You say that death is your material. It's an unexpected statement. Are you more interested in death than life?
SS I am interested in the life of a living corpse and in my works in particular.

NR After the explosion of Russian contemporary art in the '90s, how is 
the scene today?
SS The Russian contemporary art scene does very well. As you see, I continue to work and so do my colleagues. Russian artists are very free today. There is no contemporary art market, there are no contemporary art museums, there are no collectors, there is no help from the Сulture Ministry. Nothing to disturb 
the progress of art.

NR You are a visual artist, film-maker, an actor, poet. You've worked with an emblematic art curator. Who are you? What defines you the most?
SS Art curators are often scared of death. They avoid the theme and in particular, Necrorealism… I guess they are afraid of maléfices [evils]. For this reason there are very few art curators working with me. I can name French curator, Thierry Dufrêne. I think my works and the constant progress in their execution define me. Serp means "sickle," a very sharp tool for harvesting. I pick up my harvest to eat them in public.

Necrorealism is at the Moscow Museum 
of Modern Art until October 30.

  • Sergei Serp