The Museum of Everything came to fame by exhibiting a spectacular array of Britain’s unloved, untrained artists. This summer, curator James Brett is producing Russia’s first major show of outsider art – and that means touring the Motherland looking for the next art superstar, combine harvester and all (Pussy Riot balaclava optional)…
Describe to me the process you’re using to try and find artists. Is it like an open audition?
It’s based on an idea to explore artists who are really off the beaten track. We did it first at Tate Modern a couple of years ago. We contacted a local papers across the country advertising for marginal artists or any contemporary artists who haven’t gone to art school. We found quite a lot of interesting artists that have prolific outputs, so I was dying to go somewhere else and see if it can be done internationally.
So how exactly are you finding these artists in Russia?
We put together this giant travelling museum which is effectively two large containers behind a truck. It’s a bit like a Radio 1 seventies roadshow.
Anybody you’ve found who stands out?
We had a crane driver who’s an amateur painter in his spare time and dedicates these fantastical works to a Russian pop star. My favourite is of her in a field next to a combine harvester. I asked if he’d ever painted his own wife and he said: “Yes, but it turned into this woman after five days.”
Does it every get frustrating separating the wheat from the chaff, or do you find it quite interesting?
I find it interesting but it’s very hard and we’re all pretty knackered. We tend to work with local artists and curators so that we can have a revolving group of people to help us. Everybody we meet we photograph, and we photograph their artwork as well. The process itself is a success whether or not we find the artists.
What is it about untrained artists that you find so compelling?
It’s the truth of the creative expression. In the contemporary art world a lot of time goes into this process of imagining the audience’s response or making art that’s specifically for the market. What’s fantastic about somebody who’s making work for themselves is that they’re not thinking of those things, so you get a much more direct relationship with what they feel, how they think, their creativity and the end result. That’s often very moving.
So you’re not a fan of the commercial art world?
There are some fantastic people working within the art world, but it’s a machine, and like any good machine there’s a lot that just goes in and out of it. For me, that’s just too impersonal and too much about money.
How do you feel about artistic freedom in Russia now that you’re there, especially given that the Pussy Riot trial is happening?
People are scared to express themselves here. We’ve noticed that a lot of the people who come to us are nervous in saying what they really think, and when they do it seems to be a really big relief. We’ve had a lot of people come and be really excited to be able to show us their work because they have nobody else to show it to. One thing that’s interesting is that we didn’t get as much protest art as I thought we would get. I thought we’d see more of that, and actually we haven’t. It might be that new law against protest.
That might be it. So have you had any trouble from police?
The only authorities we’ve heard from was a policeman who demanded we exhibit his nine-year-old duaghter’s work.
The Museum of Everything will be shown in regional cities throughout Russia and culminates in a final show at Gorky Park, Moscow in association with the Garage Center of Contemporary Culture. If you are a Russian artist and would like to submit work, check their touring schedule. www.musevery.com
Words: Zing Tsjeng