We met Konstantin Bessmertny in a cozy coffee shop in Coloane village, evidence that he knows how to pick a place. In a humorous tone, the Russian painter and sculptor was wearing a t-shirt that read “struggling artist,” despite being one of the most distinguished creators based in the region. Mr Bessmertny has been living in Macau for over 20 years. Born in Siberia, not far from the border with China and the city of Harbin, he had early contact with Chinese culture and a grandmother who spoke Chinese. He also cites his family history to explain why he felt so attracted to the “Mediterranean culture” that he found in Macau, and which is inspirational to him. On a sunny spring morning, the Times visited his new studio in the heart of Coloane village and saw paintings that convey his style, full of allusions to literature, sexuality, music, history and politics. Hearing him talk, citing books and historical episodes, we realized that his artworks are in some ways an extension of his thinking. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say:
MDT – You arrived in Macau over 20 years ago, in 1992. How was this city back then?
Konstantin Bessmertny – I remember that we [he and his family] arrived in Guangzhou in December 1992. It was night and we noticed the pollution and the many bikes. It seemed like the end of the world. When entering Macau, I was surprised and impressed. Macau had something. I thought: ‘I can work here.’
MDT – Would you say that things have rapidly changed here since the handover or do you still think that the region has a small town feeling?
KB – The good thing is that gambling is now concentrated in one area; it doesn’t actually get to the soul of Macau. That small town feeling still exists. Lots of tourists and friends of mine, some of them writers and artists, come here and they don’t want to see casinos. Their destination is Macau, like it was [in the past].
MDT – Your works have direct references to Macau, like in your recent painting “The Battle of Vegas Macau,” in “Times of Great Ignorance,” and in many others. Is this region an inspiring place for an artist?
KB – Sure, that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t found a better place for so many years, and I have tried many times and many places since ‘95, ‘96. I could live anywhere, believe me. [Meanwhile] I discovered Portugal [he has a house in the Portuguese city of Alcobaça] and the Mediterranean culture. It fits me; some of my ancestors were from the Black Sea, so there is something Mediterranean in me. That is one reason, the other is that I don’t like decorative art and I’m disappointed with the abstract. I don’t like many movements that were artificially implemented in the history of art. My art is a reflection of the surroundings, so I have to process and to make something out of it. I don’t recreate the already existing visual image – I create another one. For this, Macau is unbelievably inspirational. No other place resembles it.
MDT – Why? Is it because the human virtues and vices thrive in this environment?
KB – Everything is on display. In many cases, Macau is very transparent. You know how politics works, you know the world of gambling and the tourism industry, and so on… Of course there are pluses and minuses [in Macau], like anywhere else in the world. But the sensation that you are part of everything here gives you another dimension to how you view the world. I could not be in the same position if I was in Moscow or, let’s say, London. In some way, I would be absolutely excluded from a lot of slices of society. Here you have access. During the colonial times, that was in the extreme. Everything was so accessible: power, businesses, all of the social pyramid. You could see and meet everyone. Macau is still like that.
MDT – You said that nowadays power and money are accumulated in the “wrong hands” and that in Macau “ignorance is the gain.” Can you explain?
KB – When I said that I was presenting a series called ‘Bestiarium,’ where I used portraits of famous people, but with an unusual twist. For example, everyone knew Andy Warhol’s hairstyle, but in fact he was bald and used a wig. He was branded as a product… So I like to strip something that was artificially implemented. The thing is that in many cases we have a false picture of reality. Why? Because we live in a celebrity culture and we value opinions of celebrities. If Madonna buys a painting, does it means that she has taste? The same goes for other things. Do you think that, if you have money, you could build a beautiful casino? Not at all. You would probably build a much better place, which survives more time and leaves a cultural footprint, using half of the money, employing clever people wearing jeans or whatever.
The economic structure in the whole world is wrong; it gives less importance to creative people, scholars and philosophers. In ancient times, Alexander the Great went to see a philosopher [living] in a barrel and asked him for advice. Chinese emperors went to see a holy man in a cave. Not being successful financially doesn’t mean that you are a loser. This concept of financial success gives the wrong idea: if you are rich, you have a package with everything, you are clever, you are beautiful, you are strong, you are a winner… It’s not like that. Things are heading in the wrong direction by favoring populist mentalities. When I was a student, my teacher told me: ‘Don’t forget, the most important thing to do is to educate.’ It’s not about going to school and teaching, (…) it’s an educative approach towards better taste.
MDT – There is no taste nowadays?
KB – I’m not socialist. I’m not coming for revolution, but lots of creative people, with high degrees of skill and imagination, are absolutely ignored and put into the lowest part of the social pyramid. And the most ignorant ones, because they have money, are put on the top to decide what is beautiful.
MDT – The region has the resources to make an artistic footprint, and yet we don’t see that happening. Is it because of the above-mentioned ignorance and lack of creativity?
KB – There is opportunity. I know that the local government does something, but more could be done. For example, art collections… you could actually influence casino builders. Maybe it’s too late now, but you see the situation in Singapore: Sheldon [Adelson] couldn’t build what he wanted.
MDT – Some gaming operators are diversifying their activities and hosting more art and entertainment events. Is that positive for the local arts community?
KB – I think it’s brilliant. They should employ creative people from Macau. I’m not asking for a job; I’m just saying that there are lots of artists that could do things. There are architects that end up signing papers. (…) I was just passing in Zhuhai and everyone knows that the new airport is state-of-the-art: people go there to see it and there are some shopping malls with great contemporary architecture. China does it. Why can’t casinos?
MDT – How do you see the new generation of artists here? Are there any promising names or are we living in an era of mediocrity?
KB – There is a big mistake. We could help and do many things, but the problem is supply and demand. Macau has no critical mass of sustained visual arts. On the scale that we have now, you can’t have one artist for ten people – it’s impossible. What you could do is paint. Nobody asked you to be an artist. Be an artist, but be one on your holidays. I was like that all the time, because I knew that I couldn’t survive as an artist, especially in Soviet Russia. So my plan B was graphic and interior design. And I did live like that. At one point, when I started to work with a gallery, somehow things changed and I could pay some bills. Of course it’s the riskiest profession. We have a salary once a year or sometimes the next year. You could fail many times, and it doesn’t mean that if you are not commercially successful or that you are not good artist – not at all. It’s just not your time or your public. (…) I was just reading “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark,” a very controversial book about contemporary art. One British economist did research about how the art world works on the financial side and included advice. There was advice on how the government should deal with artists.
The best approach, already proven in Europe, is that it doesn’t work when you give money to artists, pay for their studio and they are living well, for example, in the center of Paris. They are not becoming great artists, because they relax and the quality doesn’t come out. There is an element of survival of the species… but artists need help, like patronage for the projects. If it’s really something outstanding or an artistic breakthrough, I don’t think the government shouldn’t interfere. There must be some commission to artists that have some projects but no money to create them. At the beginning, you have to help talented young people to study.
MDT – Here in Macau, there are no fine arts schools. Would that be beneficial to foster new artists?
KB – We probably don’t need a school, but if there are talented kids, the government could sponsor them [to study outside].
MDT– The government has been talking about economic diversification through the creative industries. Do you think that such a thing exists here?
KB – There are some programs; some work, others don’t. But at least there is initiative and it works for some. I see some designer companies, like Macau Creations. It’s brilliant that they are trying to do things that go against the populist stream. It’s easier to sell pandas than something very ‘designy’ and controversial. If the government thinks that, in some way, some creative institutions and companies could fit into the category and they could be better with the help of the government, then why not?
MDT – How would you comment on the fact that the Art for All Society (AFA), which you were a founding member of, was forced to close its art gallery in Macau due to high rents? Are there any places left for a local art scene to grow?
KB – That doesn’t happen only here; in Hong Kong it is even worse. You are trying to do something, but you have to pay the rent, and the rent is so unbelievably expensive that disaster will come upon you. Regarding AFA, my initial idea was that Macau should start a creative society where locals mix with non-locals. That would probably have been better, inviting an artist from somewhere else to come to work and exhibit, but it shouldn’t be just Macau artists being promoted abroad. You don’t promote something that you don’t even have time to make. When you are too busy organizing things, I don’t think there is quality. When I see the drop in the shows’ quality and everything being centered around how to survive and get the money… everyone has this problem of how to get money. I have had three projects lying on the shelf for six or seven years. Maybe I’m not good at finding sponsorship and so on, but I can’t make it alone. Every project has to be researched and carefully supervised, because just giving money is not enough. You have to know that you are giving money to the right hands and for the right cause. It’s a pity that artists cannot survive and that AFA cannot pay the rent, but the guilt lies not only with the government.
They [artists] need to understand the situation: if you don’t have a big studio, you have to adjust to a small studio; if everything is squeezed out in one place, you look for another place. Artists lived and survived in this situation for many years. I’m squeezed in Macau as well; I had a big farm before, and now I’m squeezed into a very small room [his studio] and have moved things to my house. I managed to buy a house in time. Imagine if I still lived in a flat; I would leave Macau, or at least think about a studio in China, or moving to Europe – say Berlin.
MDT – There is no market here, or you are talking more in a global perspective?
KB – In Macau, there is a limited market for art and lack of critical mass.
MDT – There are some locals who have bought several of your artworks – we could say that they collect them. With the region’s wealth, are there more local people buying art?
KB – During the last two years, I was commissioned [to create] two works in Macau. I don’t think it’s a big demand. I work mainly for outside [buyers]. I probably have more people coming to my studio from Europe than from Macau. (…) Now there is a demand [in Macau] for mainland Chinese artists and even the locals don’t fit into that category.
MDT – But you keep on exhibiting here on a regular basis. Why?
KB – It’s my duty. I’m local, I live here. Everything that comes up, like a museum request, of course I have to support it. I do my best.
MDT – Do you feel appreciated here?
KB – Yes, you are not painting for success. You do things for yourself, in your studio. You never think of money or anything; you just have pleasure if you finish the way you wanted it to finish, and you are very unsatisfied and unhappy when you can’t reach it. So, if it’s appreciated by one or two people it’s already enough. You feel like it’s not just for you –
it’s for somebody else as well. Actually, there is some level of appreciation in Macau. In music, I’m very surprised. The level of classical music appreciation after these years of constant music festivals makes [all] the difference. I see audiences in Macau attending concerts that could be compared with Beijing and Shanghai, where people sometimes don’t know when to clap. In Macau, it is already very civilized. The art appreciation level of the local public is quite high and I have lots of admirers and friends. But the problem is that there is not enough critical mass to support art.
MDT – A huge city is being built very close to the place where you live [Coloane]. What do you expect from the Hengqin development, where the creative industries are said to have a place?
KB – I think that people in charge sometimes don’t understand that cities live in a different way. We group together in a different way. (…) Sometimes the government builds a square for people to celebrate and people don’t go there – they go to the old one or the alternative one. You have to be very careful and follow this natural way of living. I don’t like things to be artificially implemented too much. The same with art, people that say: ‘Art should be like this.’ That’s why I have trouble with contemporary art, because most of the 20th century consisted of movements implemented by the art critics and gallery owners. So, for example, you had to be an abstractionist to survive during the fifties and sixties. What if you are not? And now you have to be politically correct or follow the trend. We live in times of glam art and art fairs. You have to go to art fairs: and, to be understood there, you have to be glamorous with ridiculous and overdone things that are actually rubbish… They are things done for circus and to impress. They have no meaning, just sparkle at you when you see it for the first time.
MDT – What are you working on now?
KB – It’s one show called ‘E meets W.’ E stands for East and W for West. It’s an overused phrase. I’m doing small paintings, very figurative. I’m trying to express the things that we probably mistook [about East-West relations]. (…) It’s going to be exhibited in Shanghai in May.
MDT – Are you going to show it here?
KB – There is an invitation from the Macau Museum. They plan to show [the works] but I still don’t know what they want to put there.
MDT – Do you think that the Macau Museum of Art is fulfilling its role?
KB – They did a very good job for the Macau dimension. What they do with their budget is unbelievable. With a bigger budget and better people, like international advisers with experience, they could do more. At the cultural level, Macau could do a super-music festival like nobody else has, with performers that could attract crowds of visitors here. The same with the art shows. I understand that most of the shows that come to Macau are pre-packaged and there is a big business around that. But Macau could lead [this kind of art] in a different direction. Everything in the world works as a brand. What attracts people are the brands. The Tate Modern created a brand and uses it to attract visitors. They exhibit only branded artists; they don’t bother with small and experimental. Guggenheim as well, focuses on the big and sensational, but Macau could lead in another direction and do something that nobody has done before. (…) Macau could make two or three shows every year [that are] invented and packaged here and could sell them around the world. (..) The approach could be to make something international with a twist or specific direction, and Macau would only benefit. The potential is there. This could happen and depends on [Macau’s] people.