How would you transform the word “art” into an artwork without mimicking Robert Indiana’s sculptures or relying on lettering? Artist Sergey Katran ingeniously approached this challenge by creating visually arresting terracotta sculptures shaped as sound waves of the word in question, uttered in at least 125 languages, dead, endangered, and alive. Katran, who currently shares his time between the UK and Russia, is interested in the phenomena of human civilisation and language. On November 24, 2021, in anticipation of the Russian Art Week that happens in London twice a year, his project launched in Oxford, in the picturesque gardens of Wolfson College. Founded in 1964 by philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Wolfson College is known as “progressive” for attracting students drawn from both, the sciences and the arts. Berlin was a well-known champion of diversity and all things egalitarian, cosmopolitan, and intellectually adventurous. From this point of view, Katran’s project resonates well with the value system of the college’s founder.
Born in Nikopol, Ukraine, Sergey Katran earned his bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences from the Krivoy Rog State Pedagogical Institute in 1992. He majored in chemistry and biology – both disciplines would later provide a useful background for his artistic projects. After the collapse of the USSR, Moscow beckoned: Sergey started his own business and then obtained an M.A. in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts. Katran is a versatile artist who experiments with Science Art and BioArt; he works in a variety of media, such as installation, sculpture, performance, and video. His practice is grounded in the most recent scientific and technological discoveries and developments. In 2012, Katran won the Lomonosov Art Prize for his intellectual contribution to contemporary art (the Prize was established by the Faculty of Philosophy of the Moscow State University). The artist is also a co-founder of the Future Research Institute (FRI) that was established in 2016 by a group of artists, art critics, and scientists.
His works were shown at and entered the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery, MMOMA and NCCA Moscow; The State Historical Museum (in Red Square); The State Hermitage; St Peterburg’s Russian Museum and Research Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts; Danish Cultural Institute in St Petersburg supported by the Consulate General of Denmark; and internationally at Ca’ Zenobio, Venice; Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche, Treviso, Italy; OT Betakontext, Berlin; Minsk Memorial Museum; Hatcham Church Gallery, Goldsmiths, London, and many others. He is looking very much forward to his project with Wolfson College, University of Oxford, hoping to expand his outreach and invite scholars and linguists to collaborate with him.
I was intrigued by Sergey’s successful change of career path, so this is how our conversation began.
You studied natural sciences before switching to art. How did you end up as an artist?
It seems I have always had a creative streak. As a school kid, I equally enjoyed studying chemistry, geometry, and literature. I was obsessed with Mendeleev’s Periodic system of chemical elements: I would imagine them as planets in the Universe, and they moved, collided, transformed… Chemistry was akin to a conceptual artistic system, which offered the opportunity to experiment with its elements. While at school, I started writing poetry and continued my poetic experiments as a university student. As an undergraduate, I frequented the Creative Youth Club and spent free time with rock musicians from a popular local band. We would discuss books, read poetry, debate ideas. At that time I was strongly influenced by the philosophical ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Russian Futurists (Oberiuts). The early 1990s were the time of experimentation.
Over those years, I kept thinking a lot about the nature of perception and the fact that visual element is much stronger than textual or oral. Gradually, poetry as translation of emotions and thoughts into words gave way to translation of words into emotions and thoughts.
Was it difficult to move from Ukraine to Russia?
I moved to Moscow a long time ago, in 1993. Prior to that, I graduated from the university, got married, and returned to my hometown, Nikopol. I was 23 years old. The Soviet Union had fallen apart, the former systems of control collapsed. Notwithstanding, the situation allowed for a great deal of freedom and offered a wealth of opportunities. I became interested in entrepreneurship – the wind of changes beckoned.
How do you keep in touch with Ukraine?
Through my family connections and occasional art projects. My parents remained in Nikopol; they died a long time ago. I still have a half-sister and cousins living in Kyiv. We keep in touch and meet up whenever the opportunity lends itself. What is happening now between Russia and Ukraine is very painful. It is an absolute absurdity, which tears me apart. I love Ukraine and Ukrainian culture, but I also cherish Russian culture and Russia. There used to be no contradiction in maintaining such an attitude in Soviet times but in today’s world, territorial and political conflicts can take decades to resolve.
In 2013, I also had a project with the Ukrainian art residency which was then based at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory. Nowadays, it is more difficult to collaborate with Ukrainian art institutions.
What are the main themes of your work, your main areas of focus?
I am generally interested in studying the phenomenon of human civilisation (or civilisations) as such. Human and artificial languages have always interested me: in principle, any language is the quintessence of the culture that has created it. Over the centuries, the language accumulates the most important concepts developed by the group, nation, or civilisation that has created it. My interest in languages also extends to coding and matrices of meaning.
In this case, what was the central idea behind your upcoming project Until the Word is Gone, which launched in Oxford?
Until the Word Is Gone is the cross-disciplinary project at the intersection of linguistics, poetry, and sculpture. It also involves ethnography and anthropology. The initial idea of this project was quite simple: I wished to discover a word that could unite the whole of humanity without being too trite or offensive. As a result, I decided on the word “art.” The next step was to make it resound in all world languages, dead and alive, that existed throughout the history of humankind. Ideally, this project was meant to evoke the ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk and take us to the origins of civilisation and even human language itself. Normally, material culture and art signal the arrival of civilisation. So, this was an attempt to trace the history of art as both, a phenomenon of material culture and abstract concept. Until the Word is Gone is still an ongoing project, and I keep on adding new languages to it.
Was it a challenging project?
It was unbelievably challenging. It took scores of tests to select the right temperature, size and shape of each sculpture. And even after that, I cannot tell you how many times I would open the kiln only to discover that the sculptures exploded inside – the material is very capricious and finicky. This whole situation also made me realise how unfairly ignored and looked down on ceramic artists are! The very process of making sculptures was tortuous and took me quite a long time. It also took me a long time to find the right ceramicist for the project. Surprisingly, I found him in a remote village in Belarus.
Another challenge was to discover that, unexpectedly, some languages did not have any word for “art.” For instance, it seems to be absent from the Ancient Egyptian or the group of the Nenets languages, so, in some cases, we had to take a risk and offer the nearest possible equivalent. It is also likely, that this equivalent may not be very correct, for the project was initiated by an artist (myself) and a poet (the late hyper-polyglot Willie Melnikov).
My collaborator, Willie Melnikov, chose to refer to himself as a “linguo-diver” – his self-coined term, which meant that he liked to immerse himself into a language, explore it, become inspired by it, and start writing poetry using some words and phrases from the language he studied. Therefore, we chose the approach to the language as a poetic and creative matrix rather than the object of academic research. In a way, we aspired to follow in J.R.R. Tolkien’s footsteps. He was the famous author and Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature, who is also known for having created his own imaginary universe abounding in languages and speakers of Elvish, Mannish and Dwarvish tongues. Tolkien also introduced a very important notion of glossopoeia (or language-making).
How would you define “art” for yourself?
I see art as pure emotion. It is also something which helps us shake off conformity and find our own goal in life. These days, looking at contemporary artworks, people tend to exclaim: “My kid could do that!” However, this is exactly the point: unlike most grown-ups, children remain true to their authentic selves. In the same manner, artists also bring something new to art through their own experiences and perceptions, and by remaining true to their inner self and its outward manifestations.
Generally, I believe, the more artists there are out there, the richer and more diverse our society will become. It is a phenomenon also observable in nature: the greater the diversity of the species, the more rich, stable and healthy is the ecosystem. Importantly, art’s major task is to offer alternative models of reality, encourage creativity and help escape the vicious circle of conformity. An artist as a creative individual first comes up with a new model of reality, and then it gradually becomes a shared vision. I am certain that within the next 20-30 years, such professions as an accountant, driver, cleaner and freight mover will disappear. Robots will work in their stead. Meanwhile, humans, enjoying their newly found freedom, will have the opportunity to follow their passions, interests, and inmost wishes.
Besides linguistics, you also venture into other fields. What attracts you to Science Art and BioArt?
I also like to keep up to date with the newest scientific discoveries, especially if they inspire me. Ten years ago, I came up with a project exploring time, had several exhibitions, got involved with curators and artists who work in this field. My background in chemistry and biology allows me to delve a little deeper into certain aspects of Science Art and develop my own ideas. Among my first projects was Fibonacci Mushrooms, marrying mathematics, biology and art, and exploring the law of the golden ratio, which is directly linked to human biophysics and physiology. Our perception is arranged in such a way that we perceive certain sequences of numbers as harmonious similarities. We are also constantly confronted in nature with the Fibonacci number and the golden ratio.
At some point, however, I realised that I did not wish to focus exclusively on Science Art and BioArt, but would like to maintain a broader perspective. I continue working on Science Art projects when they motivate me, but also prefer not to abandon the field of visual art.
What about the Future Research Institute?
The Future Research Institute is a self-organized entity, the brainchild of artist Vladimir Smyslyakov. Today, it focuses on conducting in-depth interviews with important artists who specialise in future studies and probably know about the future more than anyone else.
How would you comment on the recent scandal around the performance Takhuda that you staged in Ossetia by yourself and twelve students at the local Fine Arts College?
The performance took place in the central Khegaturov Park in Vladikavkaz during the Alanika international festival of contemporary art. It is an important contemporary art event for Vladikavkaz and Ossetia. I have been collaborating with the organisers, such as Gala Tebieva, Lilia Galazova and a small team of like-minded staff, for several successive years and found them to be highly professional and courageous enthusiasts. They have already significantly contributed to the development and promotion of contemporary art in the North Caucasus region. My performance named Tahuda (a Wish in Ossetian) referred to the eponymous poem by Kosta Khegaturov, the national Ossetian poet, which is dedicated to a person who honours his native country and venerates its traditions. Twelve young ladies, -- all students at the local Fine Arts College – embodied the person rooted in history and tradition. They stood up to their knees in soil, all dressed in black and gently swayed to the music of contemporary Ossetian composer Larissa Konukova – thus, embodying the notion of being rooted in culture and tradition, like a tree rooted in soil. The place for the performance was also deliberately chosen, as there were plans to build a new contemporary art museum on this site.
However, the reaction of the Ossetian nationalists and traditionalists to this performance was quite unpredictable. It provoked rage and indignation among certain national and religious groups. I was accused of Satanism, of the intention to destroy national religious and cultural values and compromise the unsuspecting performers. In any case, it seems that the performance exposed some sore spots and vulnerabilities in the Ossetian society without indenting to do so. I also was pleased with the fact that I received much positive feedback from the more educated and discerning members of the Ossetian audience who did not perceive the performance as any kind of a dark ritual or attack on their values and religion. I had to turn off the comments to the YouTube video of the performance, though, because they quickly descended into threats and became unconstructive and aggressive.
Could you tell us of any future projects of yours?
I have several projects in tow. The first is the upcoming Voyager3 exhibition. As you might know, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were NASA's most successful and longest-running space projects. So why Voyager 3? We designed this project, thinking of space travel dedicated to art and promoting intercultural and even intergalactic exchange. The second installation titled as A Thousand Handshakes is in the process of gestation. It will consist of thousands of relatively small objects in white clay. The objects are all handmade (I make them myself) and are of a highly symbolic shape and conceal all sorts of profound messages in coded form. The installation centres on the interdependence between man and other species in nature, and reminds us of the environment, into which humans are organically integrated and which they have no right to ignore. Quite the opposite, humanity has to adjust to the existing ecosystems rather than suppress and destroy them as it happens now. I am much into Murray Bookchin's ideas and his “Ecology of Freedom” that insists on the need for reorganizing society along ecological and ethical lines. The third project bears the working title of the Northern Corps. In a sense, it is a further elaboration on the project Until the Word is Gone, but this time, dedicated to the Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Far East. I am currently in the process of negotiation with partners from Salekhard, a town in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, which also crosses the Arctic Circle. We are now actively researching on indigenous five languages, which are Sami, Nenets, Khanty, Komi and Selkup.