In his practice, a Ukrainian Düsseldorf-based artist Aljoscha explores visual possibilities of synthetic biology and the new aesthetics of biofuturism and bioethical abolitionism. His organically shaped sculptures made of acrylic glass and metal are the attempts at mapping out the organic life of the future – something that the author refers to as bioism (the term he has coined himself). Aljoscha’s highly complex and delicate artworks defy classical canon. They seem to evoke a once popular Bergson’s concept of élan vital, based on self-organisation and spontaneous morphogenesis of living organisms. Aljosha’s own ideas of extending life to lifeless subjects seem to be a further development of this notion. If in the early 20th century such practitioner of Art Nouveau as René Binet heavily relied on Ernest Heckel’s Kunstformen der Natur in his architectural and interior designs, Aljoscha does not borrow from nature so directly. He rather seems to recreate the process of organic growth itself by letting his sculptures evolve spontaneously in his hands. He continues applying thick, viscous acrylic paint, layer by layer, millimeter by millimeter, until he is pleased with the result. There is something biblical and god-like in the process, which may sometimes take months. This way, his sculptures evolve and take shape without any premeditated scheme, as if naturally self-organising and growing.
Generally, Aljoscha believes that artists of the future will abandon traditional materials needed for producing artworks and will start using living matter instead, thus, ushering in new forms of life. Although he also produces graphic works, the artist is primarily known for his installations in public spaces, such as museums, art galleries, churches, schools. Over the past three years, he held scores of solo exhibitions, his works were showcased at TEFAF art fairs in New York and Maastricht. In 2020, the artist received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and most recently, in 2022, from the Cultural Foundation of the Free State of Saxony and Goethe Institut in Dresden, Germany. He is the recipient of Perron-Kunstpeis, Wilhelm-Morgner-Preis, winner of the award given by Fundacion Bancaja in Valencia, and many others.
Aljoscha studied art with Prof. Konrad Klapheck, Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari. His works can be found in such museum collections as Tate Modern in London, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, The Getty Center in Los Angeles, the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, to name only a few.
This year, Aljoscha launched series of anti-war artistic interventions in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities on the eve of Russia’s full-fledged attack on Ukraine, on 23rd February 2022. “Bioism condemns any violence against humans, animals and plants. The suffering and war must be stopped!”— protested the artist. The footage of his performance in front of the Motherland Monument in Kyiv, became viral. However, this épatant action was followed by much lesser known charitable installations of his works in various war-ridden areas of Ukraine.
I was willing to find out more about Aljoscha’s philosophy and art ever since, and finally I was lucky.
Aljoscha, you might have been asked this question a thousand times before: what is bioism?
Bioism is an attempted symbiosis of the aesthetic of biological complexity, biological deviations, biofuturism, and bioethics. This is a visual philosophy of a hitherto unseen and only anticipated new existence of living beings free of suffering. It is an integral part of the new philosophical trend that is referred to as paradise engineering.
You mention in your statement that paradise engineering is an epiphany of new bioethics.
In a sense, bioism is the aesthetics of everything unpredictable and bizarre in synthetic biology; it is not just an image, but also a pathway to future happiness.
In your statement, you write that museums of the future will transform into zoological gardens, and art studios will turn into biolabs. Don't you think that this would contradict the main tenets of contemporary bioethics?
Contradictions and deviations, and all sorts of mutations are the driving force of any form of life and evolution. Furthermore, bioethics is not just a set of behavioural biological norms but a science dealing with ethical challenges behind the interactions of all living organisms, and not exclusively on our planet. Our civilization is already busy with creating new biological forms, which, in their turn, are expected to yield financial profit. The process has been already launched and is irreversible. This only means that the importance of bioethics will grow exponentially with years. Ideally, I hope that bioethics will not only become tantamount to a "nervous" system, providing “reactions” to critical and borderline coexistence of various living forms, but will also lead our species to a happier and more harmonious self-evolvement.
Therefore, the mission of the artist consists in ushering in new organisms and forms of life, defying all pragmatic considerations. This role only appears to be utopian, whilst, in fact, it is a visionary, experimental and acceleratory one. An artist per se is the creator of alternative universes, an individual who deals with challenges and complex philosophical issues, who identifies errors and warns of cognitive impasses along the way.
Isn’t there a risk that the bioethics you propose might present a threat to humanity and the environment? Humans are far too presumptuous in meddling with nature.
Unfortunately, over millennia, we have mutated into the most successful and most dangerous predators on this planet, becoming a threat not only to other forms of biological life, but also to ourselves. All biological forms in our predominantly ultra-social, pseudo-anthropocentric (which is, in fact, sociocentric) ethics are viewed as nothing else but resources. Even the humanism in its highest form is unable to overpower the fact that humans are just a resource to other humans. The time has come to consolidate our massive accumulated knowledge and to transform ourselves into a qualitatively new species. We must change our attitudes towards biology, life and social ideals, and practically undergo a metamorphosis ourselves. I hope that from a manic social predator we can transform into a new species, free from suffering, fear, aggression, and intolerance to the unknown. And following that, not only I expect a significant increase in our life span, which can endow each person with greater emotional stability and wisdom at the most primitive and basic of levels, but also a greater "sense of happiness" on a biochemical level – nay, even better, a genetic improvement in our ability for empathy, kindness and that type of contentment and well-being that was known as eudaimonia among the ancient Greeks.
In an interview to Deutsche Welle, you spoke about your installation in Gulyaipole, the birthplace of Nestor (Father) Makhno. Can bioism be viewed as a kind of anarchism?
Why not? To a certain extent, yes. Anarchism is a crude attempt at the deregulation of society, a way to liberate oneself from the dictate of the masses, and a way to achieve freedom from power, especially the power of the state.
Bioism also needs freedom as a prerequisite. However, in this case, it is not an ultimate goal, but a creative environment conducive to experimenting with biological deviations, mutations and their multiplications. Bioism could be defined as bio-anarchism, but, in fact, it goes much further than that: it does not view individual freedom as a self-regulating end in itself, but rather as an optimal vector of composition.
What is your attitude towards the so-called body enhancements?
Positive. Their history is amazing, as it is always an accumulation of our knowledge about ourselves and the world. Clothes and shoes, crutches, glasses, hearing aids, dental, pelvic and joint implants, blood vessels, artificial heart valves and pacemakers, brain stimulators – this long list saves billions of lives on a daily basis and is growing exponentially. Genital enhancement and aesthetic implants, overall appearance adjustments and modifications, and even tattoos significantly help people solve their psychological problems and experience a longed-for sense of belonging to a particular social group.
However, I find it curious that our civilization spends annually significantly more funds on breast augmentation than, say, on breast cancer research. At that point, I believe that most of these problems are in people’s heads and stem from the lack of self-esteem. It is much easier though to blame it all on one’s appearance rather than face one’s own insecurities.
Well, speaking of other challenges humanity faces today, one of them being the climate change. As an artist, what do you do to reduce your carbon footprint and minimize your use of plastic (some of your installations are made of silicone, for instance)?
I do my best! I actually love to sketch and draw in pencil. Well, jokes aside, the silicone and acrylic materials I often use in my works are in fact degradable; they are all made of synthetic organic materials.
I also believe that an even more serious solution to this issue would lie in a global stimulation of birth rates following the raising of educational standards and overall improvement of the quality of life. Another much-needed measure would be the launch of a new global research programme on innovative non-carbon energy sources.
You currently live in Düsseldorf. How did it happen that you moved from Ukraine to Germany?
As I graduated from the Faculty of Economics in Kharkiv in 1995, it became obvious that the iron curtain had finally fallen. The situation offered me a unique and singular chance to find out more about another way of life and to travel the world. And I was also very keen on becoming an artist, for art was something I had loved since childhood. While still at school, I came across the 1987 German magazine Merian. That was the issue featuring the famous group of Düsseldor artists. So, I ended up in the class of one of these artists, Konrad Klapheck. Later, I was lucky enough to study at the Fine Arts academy in Düsseldorf.
What is the origin of your nom de plume Aljoscha?
It was a difficult decision, which I occasionally regretted later. And yet, it was a principally logical and organic step: this was the name I had always been addressed by since I was a kid. It is easy and simple, and it inevitably places me at the top of any list. Besides, A is just beautiful.
You stated somewhere that you regarded art as “one of the highest human activities” which represented “a philosophy, perhaps even a religion.” I have also noticed that you had many of your installations mounted up in churches. Does this hold any special meaning for you and is it somehow related to your personal philosophy?
Probably not directly, but indirectly, for sure. Indeed, I tend to receive two or three offers per year for major scale installations in sacred or desecularised spaces. Apart from the controversial character of biofuturistic discourse and future of the curatorial bioethics, I believe that the clergy in these places are drawn by the volume and lightness, transparency and complexity, fragility and strangeness of unearthly superorganisms which take over the sacred spaces. It is my way of creating my own aesthetic utopia.
On the other hand, I am usually attracted by superhuman size and transcendent character of churches. I see them as manifestations of our aspirations towards the Unknown. What can It be like? Am I It? Are we all It? Are complex natures of the world and its biologically diverse ecosystems, the incomprehensibility of time and space Its major attributes? All such and similar questions give me a great sense of joy during the composition [Aljoscha often refers to his artistic process as “composition”-I.K] and offer me the chance to look at what I am creating in a totally new light.
Please tell us about your works that are now installed at schools, shelters and nursing homes in Ukraine. How did the idea to support people in besieged areas come about?
I was born and spent my childhood in the city of Lozovaya in eastern Ukraine, which finds itself under frequent missile attacks nowadays. The House of Culture, whose library I used to visit weekly as a child in search of new books, on whose stage I performed and where I first saw professional paintings on show, was destroyed by a direct hit of a missile on May 20 this year. My sister helped to operate on seven people who were wounded in the attack. For this reason, my sense of belonging to and kinship with the suffering people of Ukraine exceeds the average levels of empathy.
Despite my absolutely pacifist stance on any military conflict, I travelled there by car with my wife and colleague Natasha in March, when many fled the country. I wished to help, in the first place, to those forsaken boarding schools and their teachers in a non-violent, peaceful, and hope-encouraging way. As uninvited guests, we knocked on locked doors and offered the schools our gift of mounting floating pink translucent sculptures or even small installations of two or three objects. I do hope that these works helped to console and cheer up the teachers who went on giving online classes in total solitude. I also hope that this might somehow help them keep up their faith in bonum humanum.
How did these people in Ukraine react to your installations?
Passing through dozens of checkpoints daily and opening our car stuffed with bioisms (i.e. sculptures) to be inspected by armed and tense soldiers, I had to overcome suspicion and distrust, explaining the purpose and meaning of our journey. Of course, apart from the usual astonishment, the range of reactions varied, but to our surprise, almost all military men were understanding and wished us success. Twice we were caught up as spies, interrogated, and then released. We were eventually officially permitted to continue our work.
Back in March when the general mood was subdued and depressed, the director of the very first school we visited, simply said that this art gave them light and hope. In April, the Russians began to retreat from Kyiv and the Sumy region. Subsequently, the further eastwards and closer to the front lines we moved with our project, the more welcoming the teachers were. And everywhere we heard practically the same response: “this pink is our hope.”
Is art at all necessary during hostilities, when people are mostly concerned with matters of survival?
First, I tend to view myself, people and societies as processes. Even in times of peace, art is considered a luxury. To an ordinary, slowly changing individual, art comes across as something unimportant: a decoration, a status symbol, or a pretence at being ethical. Therefore, I would say that art is a necessity only to those adults who are processing things relatively fast and are capable of seeing art as a phenomenon registering major shifts in the collective perception of the world, an ongoing philosophical development. Children, in the meantime, are much more open to new things, and therefore, even in wartime, there are still many people who need art as an alternative way of existence, as a metaprocess that makes the impossible a reality. Art reminds us of the possibility of the impossible and brings hope into the life of fear and violence.
How do you view the current situation in Ukraine?
It is unbelievable, but now, in November, when occupying forces first fled from the Kharkiv region, then left Kherson and continue to retreat, people's hopes have grown much stronger. Nevertheless, most common people of Ukraine, who have now consolidated as never before in country’s history, hope for peace and wish to put an end to the ongoing violence.
Having said that, I am also aware that in case of Ukrainian victory, the country may face significant risks of getting transformed into a dictatorship or a totalitarian ultranationalist society. I would hope that Zelensky does not remain Ukraine’s president. Moreover, I believe that the institution of presidency should be dismantled altogether, for the country needs the status of a federalized parliamentary republic like Switzerland. This move will deprive the corrupt oligarchy of any chances of getting into politics under the pretext of rallying for conservative national unity.
Are you experiencing an identity crisis or an internal conflict due to the war?
Any of us experience an identity crisis when we look in the mirror and think: is it me, this creature? Or when one thinks about death, the termination of one’s life process and a possible transitioning to a different state.
In any case, since childhood, I have viewed any society as a living superorganism, indifferent to human feelings and remote from the clichéd ethics. A war brings out and makes visible all monstrous, repressive and cannibalistic aspects of any state, especially if it had previously been poisoned by any kind of ideology. Depersonification, dehumanisation, sacralisation of violence, intolerance, deification of political leaders, the ideology of sacrifice, cruelty, genocide, fear – all these monstrosities are the direct and logical consequences of any society’s consolidation in the time of military conflict.
I am "no island" either, and I cannot exist outside the society for too long, even if I am cautious enough to maintain a safe distance from it whenever possible.
What would you not recommend to an aspiring artist?
To care about anyone's opinion of their work.
What contemporary artists do you admire?
None, to be completely honest. However, some colleagues are more surprising than the others. I am speaking in the first place of Lee Bul and Reiner Maria Matysik.
Is there a gallery or a museum of your dreams where you would like to hold an exhibition?
This should not necessarily be an art institution. We still continue organising various street interventions. However, I would be delighted to do something for aliens or for another galaxy, or in another time and dimension.
What are your nearest plans? Any projects you are working on at the moment?
I have no plans, I just keep on composing.