Jonas Engelmann on "Novosibirsk" Festival of Young Subcultures
The Berlin comic artist Sebastian Lörscher searches for the young art scene in Novosibirsk, digs through the rubbish with a gender researcher, and finds soldiers at a subculture festival
“You didn’t see anything at all if you were drawing all the time!” artist Sebastian Lörscher hears from the woman sitting next to him during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in the theatre in Novosibirsk. “But the opposite is the case,” he explains to readers of his travel memoirs from Russia’s third largest city, “when I’m drawing, I’m looking much more closely than when I’m just sitting there. As I walk along the red carpet into the Novosibirsk night, I feel that I’ve never watched a dance performance so attentively.”
Novosibirsk is a young city, founded in 1893 as part of the state project to better develop Siberia. The Trans-Siberian Railway runs through Novosibirsk and the settlements for the workers involved in the construction were the starting point for the city’s founding. Today, Novosibirsk has more than a million and a half inhabitants. For its 125th anniversary, the Goethe-Institut invited Sebastian Lörscher to spend a week reporting on everyday life and the art scene there. It’s impossible to capture a city of millions like Novosibirsk as a visitor in just one week, so Sebastian Lörscher limited himself to brief incidents and encounters that together form a larger picture of life in the city.
“I like nowhere”
First of all, he meets with young artists who report on the city’s art scene and how difficult the situation is for young art in the city. Lörscher juxtaposes different voices that illustrate the ambivalence of working artistically far from Russia’s art centre of Moscow. Anton, for example, explains, “We’re right in the centre of the city and pay almost nothing. It’s one of those wonderful things about Novosibirsk! In Moscow, I would worry every day about how I’m going to pay my high rent. Here, I have plenty of leisure time, can pursue my dreams, and concentrate fully on my projects. Where else do you get that?” For this freedom he is willing to live in Siberia’s nowhere. “I like nowhere. In nowhere, you have lots of opportunities, in nowhere you have the space to create something new. And I’d say nowhere is on our side!”
Pyotr, curator at the Novosibirsk Centre for Visual Arts, is more reserved and chiefly points out the bureaucratic structure behind the art world, saying, “When you come to such an institution, usually some senior figure presents you with a list of what to do and what to display. We can’t suddenly pour a pile of rubbish here and say that this is art. We have to work step-by-step; we want to gradually sensitise people to new things.” In addition to the artists’ statements, Sebastian Lörscher sketches their works of art, many of which aim to provoke the fossilised structures: We see Pikachu with Lenin’s head, half-naked men in front of the Kremlin, or Soviet symbolism in toilets.
As in his travel book Making Friends in Bangalore, Lörscher’s drawings are dominated by sketchy lines, pale shades made with coloured pencils and felt-tip pens that set accents. This becomes particularly clear in the second episode that Lörscher presents: his visit to a festival of young subcultures in Novosibirsk. The artist captures the juxtaposition of western pop culture and Russian reality in almost abstract expressionist drawings. Cosplayers, goths, space superheroes and Russian techno meet the martial presence of the military. “In the midst of the hustle and bustle, cheerful soldiers pose for selfies, demonstrate how to dismantle machine guns, and advertise for the Russian military with shooting ranges and knife fighting games.”
Rubbish for all
Lörscher’s encounter with the philosopher, gender researcher, and sociologist Tatiana, who is introduced as a “rubbish activist,” is particularly striking. She explains, “I’m interested in the stories in the rubbish! What people put on the street practically tells me their entire life story, their ways of thinking, their attitudes. I’m so fascinated with understanding how our society works. I learn everything from their rubbish!” Tatiana’s view of Russian society mirrors the comic artist’s gaze of the country: You have to look at what others dismiss as unimportant, disregard conventions and thus, out of other people’s rubbish, reveal stories that shed light on a city, a country, a society.