Photo: Semyon Motolianets

Recipient of the Merita award Ilya Orlov seeks radically abstract art

The Art Foundation Merita scholarship was awarded this year to the University of the Arts Helsinki's Academy of Fine Arts doctoral student Ilya Orlov, who focuses on theories of avant-garde and conceptual art.

In his research, Ilya Orlov combines analytical conceptual art with Russian formalism. He finds these two traditions succeed the best in explaining what a piece of art is as well as what art itself is.

Orlov emphasizes that these theories explain but do not interpret.

“Interpretation seeks the ‘sense’ of an artwork, while in the avant-garde piece of art, senselessness – the negation of sense – is sometimes a deliberate device of sense-making itself, aimed at questioning the viewer’s common sense.”

For Orlov, theoretical work means analysing the structures of an artwork.

“Theory is like a toolbox that allows one to figure out how a thing is done, and how to learn to make a better one.”

Nevertheless, there is always a contradiction between theory and creating art. Whereas theory creates rules, art aims at breaking them.

“This is why it is so hard to learn and teach art. However, if we were to say it is only dependent on talent, inspiration, and other ephemeral properties, we might as well quit our jobs. This difficulty is a challenge worth taking.”

Orlov finds fulfillment in looking for and finding paradoxes, mismatches and disagreements both in art and in theory.

“At our doctoral programme in the Academy of Fine Arts, we have dozens of theoretical views, which might be in opposition to one another. Who knows who, in the end, is going to be right. Discussions and intellectual battles are genuinely essential for theoretical work.”

They might also create friendships.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned during my years at the Academy of Fine Arts is that theoretical conflicts and mismatches sometimes make academic relationships even more firm and genuine. Colleagues become friends and that is priceless.”

New artwork, new dispute

In its justification, the selection board mentions Orlov’s series of small but remarkable exhibitions that dissect the Russian avant-garde tradition and re-evaluate the significance of avant-garde artistic activity today.

In his series of paintings and lithographies called The Very Last Futurist Exhibition, Orlov turns around the idea of counteracting gravity held in the 1910s by suprematists and in the 1920s by constructivists. In Orlov’s works, the compositions of previous styles of art drop to the bottom of the picture.

“For me, every new work is a new challenge, dispute and argument — both with my past self and with the art of the past, as well. I ask myself if I am still an artist and is this still worth doing.”

Orlov needs to face the question of obeying and breaking rules as a theorist as well as an artist: Creating something new always calls into question something old. On the other hand, artistic work is building a new “machine” or new mechanisms, while at the same time inventing new rules and new theory.

“A piece of art is uniting an idea with its sensually perceptible form. There is no other way to say what is said by the concrete artwork. If the same thing can be said by journalism or by an academic article, what is the point of doing it by means of art as well?”

Orlov wants to orient towards art that is free of connotations, associations, predecessors, background and context. He dreams of radically abstract art — not just the sensually perceptible abstraction, like an abstract painting, but abstraction in the sense of creating something out of nothing, as a “pure act of creation”.

“This is exactly what the greatest pieces of avant-garde art, such as Duchamp’s Fountain and Malevich’s Black Square, are. They have been made out of nothing. Though this might be the dream of every artist, I would be happy to conclude my answer with such banality.”