Hope in a Russian Haystack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this dying village, people don't carve out a living. They scrape it with their nails from the soil.

For the old women who have to chop their own kindling and the lonely widows who shed tears at giving their last cow up to the butcher, what use is art?

Thirteen years ago, artist Nikolai Polissky came to this village from Moscow, burning with creativity. He built armies of snowmen and whimsical towers out of hay, or firewood or twigs, whatever was lying around.

To some villagers, he's a madman, the spark for a bonfire of resentment. To others, he's an inspiration who showed them the beauty of art in a place devoid of opportunity or hope.

Radiantly impractical, the towers irritate some locals, who grumble that they create a nuisance. Residents are too busy struggling at the grinding business of survival to shuffle the few hundred yards from their homes to gaze and wonder what the constructions signify.

That someone would pay a Paris gallery $2,000 for a photograph of one of these confections is far beyond the locals' understanding, and only serves to reinforce a sense of heartless lunacy in a market that values people like them at nothing.

But other villagers, who at first couldn't see the point of Polissky's works, now are moved by their majesty, ablaze with twinkling light on a purple moonlit night.

"The funny thing is, they talk and say: 'What's the point? Why do we need this?' " said Ivan Parygin, 17, one of the many locals drawn like moths to Polissky's light. "But when they come down and see it, you can see their eyes shining."

Standing at the top of Polissky's latest creation, a 90-foot tower of twigs and branches that sways and creaks in any gust of wind, it is at first a little difficult to catch a sense of his artistic vision.

The whole thing is hammered up with a properly artistic sense of haphazard asymmetry, a structure so untouched by safety considerations that it makes your feet tingle as you clamber up on slippery birch branches and rustic, homemade ladders.

The reward up top is a splendid view, if you can forget for a moment what lies beneath your soles.

The giant basket-weave structure might recall the ethereal 1922 Shukhovskaya radio tower--pride of the Soviet Union--that inspired it. To some, it's a rocket. It even conjures up elements of the Eiffel Tower.

"It's great when people move inside the tower. You can't see them, but it creaks and groans and you can sense they are there," Polissky burbled excitedly.

But the construction is not quite finished yet. Polissky's team of builders began in June, and by late this month it will be complete. Then Polissky will take out his camera. He has a talent for lighting and photographing his creations, capturing the sunlight, the dawn mists, frost and snow that nature's charity adds.

"The snow will come. When there is a thaw followed by a cold snap, the tower will be covered in ice," he said. "It will look beautiful."

A Squatter in

Midst of Villagers

Polissky, who devoted himself to painting, and a few close friends first arrived here from Moscow, 125 miles away, in 1989 and squatted on the land.

"The land was like a mysterious island, and we felt we had to build something unusual," he said. "We wanted to make something monumental."

They faced hostility.

"The locals did not take to us," Polissky recalled. "There's a traditional Russian fear of strangers. There was quite a bit of aggression toward us. They were against us as Muscovites. But that was a long time ago."

After a dormant period, when he did little painting, Polissky understood he had failed to find the new, vital direction in painting that he craved.

He is a onetime "Mityok," one of the leaders of an art movement famous in the mid-1980s for rejecting socialism and finding artistic inspiration not by opposition but by a devil-may-care lifestyle of permanent, joyful inebriation.

"We had a reputation as being people who knew how to live. But either you die a heroic death as an alcoholic or you get on the wagon," said Polissky, who never embraced the port wine breakfasts of others in the group.

Two years ago, he put aside his oils and brushes, inspired by new materials that were free or cheap and widely available: snow, hay and wood.

Enlisting villagers, he created 220 snowmen, with carrot noses and bucket helmets, straggling down a slope. He made a structure of hay prosaically named "The Tower" that resembled a great golden spiral shell, inspired by the biblical tower of Babel.

He designed and built a 330-foot aqueduct of snow, and a tower of chopped firewood.

These creations stood in soft harmony with this serene piece of Russia, where the afternoon sun paints a silvery light on every leaf, where the river lies cloaked in unctuous fog under a full moon. At the end of each season, the creations melted, or he destroyed them.

"In the summer of 2000, everyone called me 'the madman,' " he said of artist friends back in Moscow. "People gave me a hard time, saying: 'What are you doing? You're working with hay?' They didn't think it was art. They said: 'Get your act together. Go back to real art. Go back to painting.' "

The hay tower photographs, exhibited widely in Moscow, as well as in Paris and at Montenegro's contemporary art biennial, show the golden spiral baking in the midday summer sun, and in misty autumnal dawn, dusted like sugared icing with frost. They show the hay mowers with their scythes, villagers with faraway eyes and careworn faces.

The works made Polissky so well known that people now come from Moscow and surrounding areas to view them.

But Polissky's time in the village is a blink compared with Natalya Bubnova's 95 years. Her horizon has shrunk with the years.

"A tower?" said Bubnova, a bent, withered figure. "Yes, we have a tower." Pausing as she hacked branches for kindling, she gestured toward an ugly rusting water tower. She was bemused to hear about another tower, this one of branches, a few hundred yards from her door.

"No. There were no towers of wood here. Never."

The village seems paralyzed by tragedy. There is no work. The place is dying. It never recovered from the collapse of the local Soviet-era collective farm and the slaughter of its 1,500 pigs and 1,000 cows in the mid-'90s.

Maria Kozhevnikova, 65, has harvested a life of hardship.

The widow, alone these last 20 years except for a succession of cats, dogs, pigs and her cow, Malyshka--"little one"--always rose at 4 a.m. to milk, and struggled in bitter snows up the long hill from the river carrying water for the stock. By June, it got to be too much and she knew that Malyshka would have to go to the butcher.

"It was a very sorry day. I even cried. But I couldn't look after her anymore. My legs don't work now."

Some Consider the Works Frivolous

The fantastical constructions of wood and hay might have made Polissky famous, but they can't save the village or bring back the past. So one might forgive those here who are a little cynical or skeptical of the artist and his work.

"Of course it's no good to us babushkas," Kozhevnikova said. Polissky and his friends "haven't achieved anything that we could put to good use."

When Polissky asked villagers to help him build the 220 snowmen for his first creation, most thought that he was crazy. But money is money.

To Alexander Kondrashov, 48, a former collective-farm worker, the project was "just a job. There was pay. We weren't wasting our time." But to Dmitry Mozgunov, a 22-year-old unemployed man who was born in a milder Central Asian city, it was a fantastic gift, compensation for the snowmen he could never build as a little boy.

"When we built a lot of them, it turned out all the snowmen had different individual faces. Of course, we had our favorites," Polissky said. "They all had their own fates too. Some fell down straight away. Some lived longer."

Mozgunov, who moved here when he was 12, said, "There were some that turned out evil. It wasn't that we wanted it that way. The material would tell what it had to tell."

Perhaps making snowmen was too much fun to be considered worthwhile, because that's when the criticism started, much of it whispered behind hands.

"They said, 'It's all a worthless prank, it's useless,' " Mozgunov said. "I tried to explain that it's art. It's like a painting, to create something with your hands and photograph it."

Kondrashov endures poverty of both time and money, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a small farm plot, and from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. as a national park watchman earning $30 a month. He snatches sleep on the job.

To him, Polissky has what seems a wealth of time and money and he expends it on whimsies.

"It gives the village nothing. It's like childish games. It has no relation to life, production, reality," Kondrashov said. "It's simply nothing. It has no meaning for me.

"I think it only causes inconvenience for the locals. In the past, it was a quiet village. No one ever bothered us. Right now there's more dust, more cars, more people. It bothers people, irritates them."

Project Takes Up Resident's Free Time

Villager Yevgeny Zelensky, 22, spends most of his free time working on the latest project, despite opposition from his parents, who see it as a dead end.

"They want me to leave the village as soon as possible and get a job," said Zelensky, who wants to find work as a car mechanic.

For other parents, it's a relief that their sons have something to occupy them, even if that is standing atop a 90-foot tower with no safety rope.

And when they see these short-lived skyscrapers, the feeling can be magical.

"A lot of villagers have never been any higher than their rooftops," said Mozgunov, standing near the latest tower of branches and twigs. "The idea scares them. But they go up the tower and they're lost for words."

After three triumphant creations, villagers now "expect us to pull off something grandiose every year," he said.

Since 2000, Polissky and his team have created a big project every summer and a snow project in winter, though the weather has played havoc with their snow sculptures.

Yevgeny Zheltov, 44, who was born here, said Polissky and his friends have brought new blood to a dying village and inspired the young. "They've changed the place beyond recognition," he said.

"It's changed my life. It's changed me," said Mozgunov, struggling to put into words his awe of and love for Polissky. "He's like a guru. He's an inspiration."

There was a shy pause when other volunteers were asked what the artist means to them. Ivan Parygin finally found words.

"I think he's a genius."

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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