Sculptor Sergey Sobolev. Metaphysics of form.

Sculpture as an art of creating three-dimensional forms from clay, wax, stone, metal, wood, bone and other materials has come a long way from ancient times to the present.  Sergey Sobolev, a contemporary sculptor, brings to light in his works an unconscious inner dimension, something very familiar and natural. These supersensible energies freely flow into each other in his work, changing the angles of plastic embodiment, balancing between the private and the public, the applied and the utilitarian.

Having graduated from the Surikov Faculty of Sculpture in 1998, Sergei became active in the field of art, sculpture and design, being a meta-designer by his own definition.

Katya: Sergey, tell us, is your art a search for some kind of universal archetypal states?

Sergey Sobolev: Yes, you are right, I do tend to fall into a certain symbolism and as a rule it concerns universal notions, which like threads link all the manifold manifestations of life. The human world is covered by a shell, a thick glaze of role-relationships and social mythology, and that theme is huge, but it doesn’t bother me at all.

Every artist has their own model of perception, scale, focus, associative series, etc. It is the specificity of perception that determines visual forms and methods.

It just so happens that my perception has an abstract form.

Abstract thinking is first of all an exit from the system of existing stereotypes in order to denote some new definition.

Archetypicality is very closely linked to language. Every word also claims to be an archetype, but each person has their own reading of the words. And therein arises the ” difficulties of translation”. It evokes different emotions and associations in different people related to their personal experience. So when it comes to an individual reading, nothing is universal. And visual art is a form of communication and therefore presupposes this very individual reading. Imagine there are seven billion people living on earth and everyone is absolutely unique in their mental structure and perception. There are similarities, psychotypes, but when you compare them closely everyone is completely different. It’s astounding. This is the interactive nature of perception of a work of art. The viewer comes in with one perception and leaves with a changed one, but they also give the work their own interpretation and some new meaning to it.

Katya: How does your work process work?

Sergei Sobolev: The main thing in work is to catch inspiration, because without it, everything is pointless. So if you want to wish something to an artist, wish him/her inspiration. The meaning of art is not in the creation of a work, but in the mystery of the process itself.

It’s very important and it’s universal advice for everybody – do not wish for the result, but get involved in the process, and when the result stops bothering you, it will appear by itself.

I also don’t believe in the thesis that art is tested by time. You can usually see everything at once. Art does not exist to explain it, but to experience it and then talk about your impressions. It develops sensitivity. Ideally, sensitivity should be present in everything, but art, as a sensitivity trainer, is only for this purpose. It requires you to be sensitive, otherwise you won’t understand anything.

For example, the sculpture ‘Contact’ is about something that is present in life at every turn. It’s a touch, a handshake, a simple exchange. It is interconnection, juxtaposition, intersection, putting one into the other, compatibility. A visual image of a broad philosophical concept. Or, for example, “Smile”. I’ve stripped it of its features of individuality. It is itself. It lives and manifests in everyone, but it is not an outward expression, not a facial expression, but a state of inner smile. It is a state that I would like to see permanently present inside. It is the materialization of the intangible.

Katya: You had a classical education, after graduating from the Surikov Institute, but your work went far beyond the academic school. What in life allowed you to reconstruct your optics?

Sergei Sobolev: To tell you the truth, I never gravitated toward academism. Of course, I cannot but admit that thanks to my art education, I have acquired a lot of useful knowledge and skills. For example, the knowledge of anatomy and art history. Also, through daily practice, I developed a free ability to draw and sculpt. Sometimes an academic education creates a stupefying sense of mastery in a person, but it says nothing about him as an artist. It’s like thinking you’re a good photographer just because you have an expensive camera. There’s also the danger of becoming a genre hostage, of burdening yourself with restrictions. like the fact that sculpture has to be sculpted and painting has to be painted.

For me, an academic education was not so much a study of the specifics of the genre as it was an experience of deep immersion, of setting profound  tasks of close observation. They did not teach me to see the beauty in the inconspicuous, the simplicity in the complex and the complexity in the simple. I had to learn myself in order not to die of boredom and not to lose interest and sense. I can’t say I had only one teacher. I took from each of them, bit by bit, what seemed interesting to me. And that, I think, is better than being influenced by authority. But I inherited from the school, I would say, a heavy-handed approach, and it’s very hard to get rid of that.

That is why, having freed myself from the academic form, I have not yet freed myself from fundamentality and a clearly exaggerated seriousness. After all, the essence of creativity is ease and joy in the process.

For me, the ideal is children’s creativity. Adults, not without a smile of course, but somehow arrogant and condescending, even though it is, in fact, the truest. I think this disdain looks like some kind of unspoken conspiracy.  After all, if we admit that almost every house has a small-big artist, then the art market would collapse, would cease to exist. But you know, many good, very good artists strive in their work for immediacy, open-mindedness and sharpness of perception, as children, and there is a special value in that.

Everyone was a child, but not everyone can preserve or revive a child in themselves. And such an example inspires hope and encouragement that it is still possible.

In general, I am very worried about the whole problem of our education in schools. I feel sorry for the children. It’s a meat grinder trying to turn a child into a cutlet. Children – fragile, sensitive creatures – find themselves in a hostile environment where they are, a priori, constantly owed something, and there is terrible psychological pressure. It is a powerful psychological breakdown, where the child is forced to change “I want” into “must”. Apparently this is the intent of the system, and many crippled people will say that this is the right thing to do.

But only by living with the word “I want” can you be a happy, fulfilled person and really do something outstanding.

Schools should teach learning, cultivate an interest and even a thirst for knowledge, rather than forcibly cramming incomprehensible information. Try to interest and enthrall, and the learning process will be many times more effective. Possessing the ability to learn, the man all that he needs to learn himself. Same Internet information by thousands of times more than in all the textbooks and in the heads of teachers. So I will not be original if I say that learning in school – it was a difficult time. But as they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Katya: Can you tell us in a few words about your concept of “metadesign”? You don’t distinguish between yourself as an artist, a designer, or a sculptor?

Sergey Sobolev: Metadesign is an attempt to define my creative credo. I coined the term a few years ago. At that time it pleased me a lot, because when people asked me, I was at a loss to define who I was. The existing model of definitions didn’t suit me.

Words and terms are a perishable product. The fact is that any notion of broad meaning very quickly narrows and acquires typical associations. A person hears a word and immediately a pattern emerges. He does not bother to analyze.

Therefore, periodically there is a need to create new concepts, which do not have any associations yet.

It is more of an internal definition, in order to free oneself from any external stamps. In general, the term “metadesign” refers to interdisciplinarity, that is, creativity without any definitions. Although there is one definition that is important to me, and that is form. I tried myself in different areas and continue to experiment. I would not even list them all, it would take a lot of time. But I came to the conclusion that I have always been interested in form, in all its angles and manifestations. So for me metadesign specializes in the design of form wherever it can be present. And everything has it in the material world. This is where the interdisciplinarity of the term comes in. I could make up any form and know much more about them than many others, if only because I am a sculptor by training. Sculptors have their own terminology, which is unknown even to many art historians. Serious sculptors have a lot of plastic and spatial problems. That’s why in their vocabulary you can hear phrases like “form should work in space”, “keep space”, “find a sculpture by mass”, “pulsating form”, “dense form”, “tight form”, “inverted or extroverted”, “statics or dynamics”, “form and anti-form”, “conjugation of forms” and so on. These are all unified, basic definitions that have nothing to do with genre, style, or taste. This is the inner kitchen, the condition for sculpture to become sculptural. That’s why not every art object can be called a sculpture, and not every sculpture can be called a sculpture either. This is not taught anywhere; it is a separate fundamental science. Now, imagine most of the objects around you. How many people ask these questions when creating them?  In most cases, their form is of no interest or value. But when you catch a glimpse of one beautiful shape out of a thousand objects, you can rest assured that it is no accident, it was worked on by a person who thinks about it.

I myself am constantly studying form and seeing it everywhere. I see it from the outside, from the inside, in sections, I see how it changes when I change the angle or the light. It is a kind of parallel and permanent process.

So when I work as a metadesigner, I can compose absolutely any form, a house or a car, or a cookie or a new person, it makes no difference to me.

There is another very important, and perhaps the main, conceptual component inherent in this term – it is the philosophy of the object. Every thing, every form can have an inner content, its meaning, or functionality, elevated to philosophy.

Every thing interacts with man visually, tactilely, energetically. We live in the world of space form, and every minute, every moment we arrive in it, and read it with our eyes. There are sharp corners, enveloping or tightening spaces, planes of walls, verticals, horizontals, countless things. We don’t realize it, but it all works on us. And this is all metadesign for me as well.

Katya: And yet context, audience and environment have to play some role?

Sergei Sobolev: Yes, of course. Any object, an art object, can be by itself, but if you want it to live in a certain space, you have to take it into account.

Everything exists in relation to the space around it.

The same thing is perceived quite differently in different spaces. Somewhere it becomes too active, somewhere it gets lost, somewhere it is out of place, somewhere it is organic and then everything comes alive around it. Ideally, it is probably better to create works for your own imaginary space. Then there is no compromise in resolving the conflict between creative intent and circumstances. I have had to work very much in the field and I see such tasks as a challenge. There is a situation and an optimal and expressive solution is required and there is a certain excitement about it.

Katya: Arsforma, your and your wife Olga Muravina’s agency, also deals with object and light design, large architectural forms, and environmental design objects. Did you have any other education?

Sergey Sobolev: A person is learning all his life, every minute, if, of course, he wants to. All that happens in life, all events and people are teachers. And, coming back to the concept of metadesign, you can notice that all Arsforma projects have a direct connection to form and space. When we are apart, we are Olya Muravina and Sergey Sobolev. When we are together we are Arsforma. In 15 years our work has been transformed many times. We did many things. There were both some contract work and our own projects. We were also involved in design, organizing and production, and we always approached it in the most creative way. But still, we are artists in our own right, so we devote most of our time to our own work and support each other in this. Arsforma gave us a lot of experience, gathered a lot of resources, technologies, assistants, trusted contractors, etc.

I must say one more important thing. Sculptor is a very ancient profession, keeping its primitive origins. This is very valuable. That is why most sculptors are very conservative in their methods. We also worked a lot in traditional materials, stone, bronze, concrete, ceramics, but we didn’t stop there. We are constantly exploring new technologies. Literally every project is a series of new technological discoveries. That is, we, at the same time, became general engineers.

We continue to make all sketches and scale models by hand, because it is impossible to create a harmonious and lively form without a tactile sense. However, we have long since mastered the digital world.

We have various contemporary technologies, such as 3D milling machines, 3D scanners, 3D printers, vacuum-forming equipment, and so on.  You wouldn’t think it would surprise anyone, but when you put it in the hands of a sculptor, it starts working in a completely different way. It is an amazing feeling when robots work for your idea, create the shape you conceived, when you can control this process, find new technological solutions for your creative tasks. So, at least in terms of technology, we are one of the few who can safely be called the sculptors of the 21st century.

Technologies and innovations took a lot of technical work off our shoulders and freed us for intellectual and creative work. They gave us freedom to realize our artistic ideas.

Katya: Why do you think there is so little public art and contemporary sculpture on the streets of Russia? Not unlike American or European cities …

Sergei Sobolev: You ask why there are few contemporary sculptures in cities. Because in principle, there are few people who can make them. And even if they do, there are a lot of administrative hurdles that get in the way. And there is no funding for it. And if they do, most often there are no good artists. You say there is a lot of sculpture in Europe, I’ve been all over Europe for work and other reasons. I think Rotterdam has the most sculpture. However, you know there is not a lot of really strong contemporary sculpture, with an idea, a feeling, an interesting solution in terms of space. Only a few people make it, all over the world, it’s a scarce commodity. But still, it’s better than nothing. I’m sure we have people like that. I could say that things are very bad here, but I won’t, because that’s not productive. As long as we say how bad things are, we only cement the existing situation and bring it to a standstill.

When we talk about how things could be, and what we need to do about it, we open up new perspectives. So it’s not all bad, because sometimes interesting objects appear, and I hope there will be more of them. But so far it’s not done at the state level, but thanks to private initiatives.

Why are there few art objects in the city? Because it seems that no one needs them and that there are more important problems. Only young people and a certain category of adults with an open perception of life need them. But, in fact, everyone needs them, just no one realizes it. Sometimes I live in the countryside in the summer and only rarely go to Moscow, and then I especially feel the city’s energy.  Basically, it is the energy of stress.

It is a peculiarity of all big cities with their overpopulation, where the struggle for survival and the struggle for personal space dominate. It is unnatural for humans to live in an anthill.

Add to this urban planning, which violates all the principles of Feng shui. But this is a very ancient and wise science of harmonizing space and building it in accordance with the natural laws. And there is an interesting point about our theme. If there are problematic spatial zones which cannot be corrected, then they suggest installing a “magic crystal” which will balance the imbalance. On a city scale, this is what street sculpture is all about. This is something about the movement of energies, which I, for example, feel well, and who does not believe or feel them, there is also a psychological explanation – the presence of sculptures and art objects in the city reduces stress, switches attention from the looping of the person on his problems, sets a different scale and angle of perception of his life.

Art in the city, unlike advertising, doesn’t want or need anything from people. They simply coexist side by side, and this situation creates a sense of multidimensionality and ambiguity of reality. I think this has a powerful psychotherapeutic effect.

Contemporary street sculpture is a reference point on the map of the city, a harbor in the emotional chaos. And finally it is interesting, beautiful, it becomes a city landmark and finally increases the self-esteem of citizens. Nowadays, a lot of people go abroad, travel, work, rest, and they all see that a city with art objects is more interesting, comfortable, more soulful. There is something to catch the eye, something that stirs emotions and thoughts of another kind. They put sculptures there for a reason, they understand why it’s necessary, or maybe they act intuitively, which is even more valuable.

A city without art looks dull, gray and lifeless. When it appears, however, it is a sign of a healthy and prosperous living environment.

I understand such a thing, that to do something in a city, the main condition is to love it and people living in it. Only then you can do something pleasant, useful and valuable for them. And of course, each space requires an individual approach, and brings its own ideas and associations, because the object must interact and integrate into it. So when you ask any passerby in the street, or even me, what an art object should be, no one can answer, because no image will emerge. They have to be different, whatever you want. But no one is interested in clones, or quoting something that’s already been there. They should be different, new, unique, then the city will find so necessary for it points of attraction.

Speaking about comparisons with European and American cities, we should not forget that we went our own way, the way of Soviet ideology and propaganda. Obviously, it is difficult for officials and our authorities to change over, to give up the old habit of seeing the masses of people instead of the living individuals.

To understand that smart, educated people live in our cities and that we have to try to live up to their aesthetic expectations. But I hope that everything is going for the better. We need some institutions which would initiate this process, which would treat it not as commerce, but as a mission; they need to take on the role of a link between the artist and the authorities. Expert independent councils that would not turn into an interregnum.

Also, in my view, everyone needs to understand and accept that art must be apolitical; it is about something else entirely, something eternal, if you like. It’s for balance, for psychological health, for the fullness of the picture.

But here, if it’s not politics, then it’s ideology. Nowadays there is so much talk about identity, but there is nothing in the head. Matryoshka dolls, balalaikas. And our identity is what it is now. In those people, that situation that exists today. We are different, but this is not an aim in itself, but a given.

Now is the moment when the space for urban sculpture is ready. This was a necessary step, because great art can exist and be properly perceived in a cultural, clean environment, not against the backdrop of garbage dumps and garages.

Territories, parks, squares are improved and I really hope that now there will appear not the next memorials and not an empty “cardboard decorations” but real, live art. It should be different, but it must be real, alive, talented and positive. And if we’re talking about festive decoration of the city, say, the new year, it’s another separate topic for conversation. It can be a real arts festival. On the basis of open art contests, unique, original objects and installations can be created. I think there will be a lot of people who want to do that. Our city is rich with active and talented artists and designers. And it will be a real cultural event, to the envy of the West. An understanding has to emerge for this, and I am sure it will. We have a huge untapped creative potential.

You brought up this topic, and I caught myself thinking that, specifically, I almost never think about sculpture in the city. Yes, I have a lot of big sculpture projects, but almost all of them are not site-specific. After all, not all plastic ideas can be scaled up to street scene, and not every message is appropriate for the city. Designing contemporary urban sculpture is a complex task which should combine the author’s manifesto with a spatial solution integrating the object into the urban environment. What the artist wants to convey and how it will work in space. And it is quite a complex but interesting task. And the question of implementation is a matter of chance. Let us believe that the time has come. I say this because I myself have always been interested in the street scale. It is commensurate with my perception. I think in large and quite concise forms which are sometimes closer to architecture than to sculpture. And something has already been done, but the main thing is in the plans. I see a tendency for the scale to gradually increase. But you yourself understand that big sculptures are quite difficult to make at your own expense, especially for good, so in most cases, they are stored and kept as seeds, like genetic codes, in the form of sketches, maquettes, models.

The work of an artist is, first of all, the generation of ideas, and this can be done anywhere and anytime, regardless of the circumstances. This is the most important and fascinating process and, in the end, the main capital of an artist.

Katya: Is there something you are working on at the moment or something that occupies your mind in particular?

Sergey Sobolev: We have just finished a very large-scale project in Spain, which we did for a year, almost without days off. These are several large panels with lights, with chrome, mirrored reliefs into a huge modern hotel. I want to talk about them, but we can’t before the opening. And it would seem necessary to somehow take a breath, to pause, but so many new ideas have accumulated this year that I literally threw myself into the workshop right away. It’s such an ocean, it’s always so interesting. Sometimes, of course, there are moments when you don’t want to do anything, and then you have to accept it, not demand anything from yourself, and enjoy doing nothing, stare for hours at a point, rest. But if there is desire, drive, interest, this should not be neglected, these are very valuable moments.

When you understand your predestination, you start to see multiple ways of realization, life itself starts to throw up different variants. Now there are various exhibition proposals both at home and abroad, there are some interested people. When you’re not standing still, life doesn’t stand still either. There are a lot of ideas and plans for street sculpture, light and kinetic objects and so on. Now that so much has been experienced and done, you come to the logical conclusion that it is time to be uncompromising in your creativity, to give yourself over to this element, to immerse yourself in it with a sense of irrevocability. This is a space of absolute freedom, in which everything makes sense.


Interview: Katya Kartseva. Photo: courtesy of Sergey Sobolev